Steve Vernaccini Jr., at age 91, wasn't too keen on leaving his comfortable home for a long trip. But his friends finally prevailed upon him to sign up for an Honor Flight out of Rochester, N.Y., bound for Washington, D.C.
The date was Saturday, May 2. He will remember it for the rest of his days.
"What I really wanted to see was the Iwo Jima Memorial," he said in a recent phone interview.
Vernaccini had never visited our nation's capital. But at the National World War II Memorial, Iwo Jima found him.
Honor Flight hubs scattered across the country use community donations to send local area war veterans to Washington to visit their memorials -- all expenses paid. Most Honor Flights stop first at the memorial to our World War II soldiers.
Vernaccini, an Army sergeant with the 752nd AAA Gun Battalion, an anti-aircraft unit, fought the Japanese for possession of the island of Iwo Jima in the Pacific.
Anyone even casually acquainted with World War II history knows that to meet someone who survived the battle of Iwo Jima is to look into the soul of courage and to guess at what images haunt the mind.
Vernaccini's unit emplaced their guns on the "opposite end of the mountain" near the sea to defend our troops against Japanese bombers.
"We had to take them down while they were still over the water," he said.
His unit stayed on the island for six months after the enemy was routed, defending against Japanese bombers that continued to mount stealth attacks on American troops.
"They bombed us on May 21, 1945, if that tells you anything," he said.
On the morning of May 2, 2015, Vernaccini entered the World War II Memorial wearing a blue ball cap with the words "Iwo Jima Survivor" embroidered in gold across the front.
Members of his group dispersed around the memorial, some drawn by the dress uniforms of the generals and admirals on hand to greet an Honor Flight from Savannah.
One of them was Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris, vice director for operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington.
Harris, spotting Vernaccini's cap, approached him to say that he was startled because he had never met a survivor of the battle of Iwo Jima. After a few minutes of conversation, Harris said, "I have something for you."
He reached under the jacket of his dress uniform and drew out a webbed belt, freed the buckle that linked the two ends, and handed it to Vernaccini.
Engraved along the top of the bronze rectangle were the words "USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7)." Across the bottom, "Uncommon Valor." A low relief of the famous Iwo Jima flag-raising scene adorned the middle of the buckle.
A few minutes later, when asked about the significance of the buckle, Harris said, "The Iwo Jima was my favorite ship." He paused. "But that man took the mountain."
After a moment of reflection, he added, "You can't let certain moments pass."
His eyes held a curious look for a beat or two of silence. "You just can't let certain moments pass."
Steve M. Vernaccini Jr., from Rochester, N.Y., walked into the World War II Memorial not knowing quite what to expect on the morning of May 2. Who knows what kind of hell his life has been since that battle so many decades ago. With memories of horror seared into his soul, it can't have been easy. But on that day, he encountered a fellow warrior who honored his suffering, his valor, in a way that no one else could have done.
Such moments are handed to us by God. We do well not to let them pass.
Carol Megathlin is a writer living in Savannah. She is a board member of Honor Flight Savannah and founder of the Adopt-a-Soldier program for the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga.