Aztec WWII veteran starts Honor Flight to D.C.
FARMINGTON — After waiting more than a decade, Aztec resident Melvin "Mel" Casteel will finally visit the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.
Casteel, 90, was one of three San Juan County World War II veterans awarded an Honor Flight earlier this year. The veterans planned to fly from Albuquerque with Honor Flight of Northern New Mexico in June.
But only one of the three — Melquides "Mel" Barela, of Farmington — was able to participate. Before the flight, José Florez, of Blanco, died in February, and Casteel suffered a head injury after a fall, which prevented him from flying.
When officials with Honor Flight of Southern New Mexico, based in Las Cruces, heard about Casteel's injury, they invited him to join their flight. About 25 other veterans, including eight World War II veterans, will board a plane in El Paso, Texas, on Friday to fly to the nation's capital.
Honor Flight was founded to transport World War II veterans to their memorial monument, which was erected in 2004 near the Lincoln Memorial. The nonprofit organization has since branched out to transport veterans of other wars, including the Korean War and Vietnam War, to visit memorials built in their honor. Veterans who are awarded an Honor Flight visit D.C. at no cost to them.
Casteel said he applied for a flight after reading an article about the organization in The Daily Times.
"I've known about it ever since it started, but I didn't know who to contact to get to go," he said.
Casteel was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944, shortly after he turned 18. After his service in Europe as a technician fourth grade in the 82nd Airborne Signal Co., he was awarded the Bronze Star, Good Conduct Medal and the European–African–Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, as well as various others.
This morning, Casteel donned a yellow Honor Flight raincoat as he waited with his cousin, daughter and son-in-law at the Four Corners Regional Airport. His reason for wanting to visit the World War II Memorial was simple.
"I was part of it," he said, referring to the war.
Pilot Paul Taylor flew his Cessna 182RG to the airport to give Casteel and his son-in-law, Doug Thomas, a lift to Las Cruces.
"I think it's going to be a lifetime experience that he'll never forget," Thomas said.
Taylor is a member of the Kirtland Flight Center, a U.S. Air Force club based on the Kirtland Air Force Base. He said he donated his aircraft and time to honor Casteel's service.
"It just seems like the most appropriate thing I can do," he said.
Veterans who are interested in an Honor Flight can get information about applying by visiting honorflight.org or by calling 937-521-2400.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.