Steve's blog: The first Stars and Stripes Honor Flight of the season

Honor means to hold in high regard or to fulfill an obligation. 

After spending a Saturday with the Honor Flight Milwaukee team taking veterans to their memorials in Washington D.C., I think that definition is just about right.

As a guardian, my job was to accompany my Vietnam-era veteran throughout his day long journey from General Mitchell International Airport airport to Dulles International Airport to the nation’s capital and the monuments and memorials and back. 

With a 5 a.m. arrival, my vet, Wayne Wold, was tired but excited when we met in the concourse area of the airport. More than 150 veterans, an equal number of guardians, Honor Flight volunteers and all the regular bleary-eyed travelers who inhabit an airport at that hour, jammed the airport, which was a buzz of activity.

A quick two-hour flight and we were on the ground in D.C. The pilot highlighted the most immediate difference we all noticed right away. We were greeted by sunshine and warm 70-degree temperatures -quite a contrast to our less than fabulous spring happening back home. It was a glorious day in Washington, and that weather set the stage for the day. 

Milwaukee’s Honor flight, which takes our veterans to Washington free of charge (due to the generosity of donors) is a seamless, well-organized venture which has now taken more than 5,000 veterans to their memorials, and our most recent WTMJ Cares fundraising efforts raised more than $50,000.00 for their efforts. My colleague, John Mercure, serves on their board of directors.

After we boarded the buses at the airport, we headed off to the Pentagon and the 9/11 memorial. On a bus full of veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, it’s easy to listen in on the conversations of shared experiences in their military careers, and most importantly, their stories of family and lives well lived.

On our bus was Ervin Dzierzewski, a player who was a member of  the 1944 Green Bay Packers. There were also retired salesmen, fishermen, former business executives, fathers, husbands and grandfathers. Because the seating assignments in the plane put the veterans together, there was a noticeable loud hum of conversation throughout the day that continued onto the buses.

As we visited the memorials, each stop both a private and public experience, it’s pretty clear that the veterans felt the emotion and significance of the moment. My vet took some extra time at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, The Wall, stopping to look for names of men he had served with at that time. I interviewed him after he had walked slowly past the dark, reflective black monument with the more than 58,000 engraved names of each of the casualties of the Vietnam War. His voice choked with emotion. It was a clear demonstration of the power of the Honor Flight experience for our veterans.

It was the end of the cherry blossom season in Washington, which announces the arrival of spring in the nation’s capital, and the mall area was jammed with tourists and locals trying to get their last glimpses, and more than a few selfies.

Our day continued with stops at the Lincoln, FDR and World War II memorials, the latter including a tremendous and spontaneous welcome by the hundreds of tourists who were gathered there. After we took a picture of all of the vets who had journeyed to DC on the Honor Flight, we took the bus back to Dulles airport for the flight home.

One last surprise awaited our veterans when they arrived at Mitchell airport. When they deplaned, a military salute and bagpipes welcomed them, and as they rounded the corner of the main concourse, thousands of family members, school kids, and other veterans cheered them home.

For many veterans, a long awaited and well deserved welcome back.

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