Honor Flight's mission brings veterans to Washington
WASHINGTON - The idea was simple, if not brilliant - once the National World War II Memorial opened in Washington, so began an effort to have as many aging WWII veterans see it as possible.
"What better way to honor the service of what many have called the Greatest Generation?" said Mike Thompson, co-founder of the northcentral Wisconsin's Never Forgotten Honor Flight.
It is one of 133 Honor Flights across the country that were formed to provide a one-day quick trip to the nation's capital - fly out early in the morning, tour around Washington on a bus making stops at various memorials and fly home that same evening.
The Never Forgotten Honor Flight is one of five such organizations in Wisconsin, covering a region of 12 counties, including Iron County. They've been doing four flights a year from Wisconsin Central Airport in Mosinee since 2010, honoring 2,563 veterans to date. Honor Flights based in Duluth, Minn., and Escanaba, Mich., also serve Wisconsin veterans.
The focus has evolved over the years. While the idea is still to honor veterans for their service, many of the Honor Flights across the country have begun to include Korean and Vietnam War era veterans, and visits to their memorials along the Washington Mall, as well.
Thompson said some of the 133 Honor Flights across the country have gone dormant, as they were founded to see that World War II veterans made it the World War II Memorial, and many of them simply ran out of World War II veterans in their area. Their mission was accomplished.
Other Honor Flight organizations amended their mission to included veterans from Korea and Vietnam, but that meant more organizing, more volunteering and more fundraising.
From the beginning, the Honor Flights have been free for the veterans, so continuing to raise the $85,000 per flight for the central Wisconsin organization is a big job, according to a member of the group's board, Jim Campbell. He said they have no less than 94 fundraisers a year done in their name.
Each of the veterans is accompanied for the day by a guardian. They're each asked to contribute $500.
"As guardians, you have a big job tomorrow," Thompson told a room full of volunteers gathered for their pre-flight training on Sunday afternoon, April 23, at Highland Community Church in Wausau. The organization's 27th flight was set to take off at 6:30 a.m. the next morning with 84 veterans - eight from World War II, 29 from Korea and 47 from Vietnam.
Campbell said the youngest of the World War II veterans was 89 and talked about the priority and care given these veterans. "There were 16.1 million World War II veterans, 3.8 percent of them are still living and 450 of them die each day."
Thompson, Campbell and one of the flight's four doctors spoke to the 65 guardians - sometimes they assign two veterans to one guardian - about the many details of the busy day ahead. Not only were the guardians asked to watch over their veteran - suggesting they stay hydrated and take their medications at meal time, while possibly managing their wheelchair; but they were also asked to listen to their veteran and engage them in talking about the service.
"Ask and listen," said Thompson. "Many veterans have never talked about their service. We've found many of them begin to open up on these flights. Sometimes it's with their guardian, sometimes with the other veterans, because of the camaraderie."
He added the day can offer "potential closure to their experience."
Campbell said while the job of being a guardian is that, a job, "it will change your life forever." Adding, not only is there a long waiting list of veterans, but also a seven-year waiting list for guardians.
Many of the guardians on Flight 27 were related to their veterans - siblings, children, grandchildren. Spouses are not allowed, but they are not ignored; as they are welcome to several events around Honor Flight, including a USO gathering in a large room at the same church after the training where the veterans met with their guardians.
The room was filled with expectant excitement, fueled by coffee, cookies, music and conversations around round tables.
This was followed by the main event of the day, a pre-flight banquet in an even larger room in the church. Veterans, spouses, guardians, their spouse, and other guests all sat at long tables for a meal prepared and served by volunteers.
While three different musical acts entertained, the highlight of the evening was a speech by Kevin Hermaning, a native of Oak Creek and a retired U.S. Marine sergeant now from Wausau, who was one of the 52 American hostages held in Iran for 444 days, before being released in January 1981.
He told how it was 37 years ago, to the hour, that a mission from the USS Nimitz sent to rescue them in Tehran went awry as one of the helicopters crashed in the desert. He spoke the names of the eight men who lost their lives that day and talked about how important it is to remember and honor those who died for their country.
Hermaning also told the story about how years later at a fundraising banquet for the children of fallen Special Operations servicemen, he met the two soldiers who were sent on that mission to find him. It turns out each of the hostages had two "shadows" charged with extracting their assigned hostage. He said he thanked them for trying, and they responded by saying they'd try again.
The room was primed for the next day - a day of remembering, honoring, sharing.
Due to the rural nature of northcentral Wisconsin, and the early departure and late arrival back of the flights, the Never Forgotten Honor Flight offers free hotel rooms the night before and after the flight for the veterans, spouses and guardians. Campbell said the hotel stays are a gift by the hotel owner.
Check in at the airport started at 4:30 a.m. A crew of Wausau-area volunteers were on hand at the gate serving donuts, fruit, coffee and juice. Smiles were everywhere. All 161 seats on the chartered airplane were taken - 84 veterans, 65 guardians, 10 support personnel and two members of the media.
"We're full every flight," said Thompson.
Breakfast sandwiches were served on the hour and 45 minute flight to Reagan National Airport. Again, everything was free, including boxed lunch and dinner sandwiches and wraps later on the bus.
If the banquet the night before or the send off at the airport weren't enough, the reception at Reagan National really began to put the "Honor" in "Honor Flight." As the veterans came out of the chute into the terminal they were greeted by a dozen or more Washington-area Honor Flight volunteers smiling and directing traffic, a man played the French horn - military songs and "On, Wisconsin" got the growing crowd to clap along.
As the veterans walked or rolled in their wheelchairs along the long terminal hallway, a line of travelers formed, many cheering, hugging, saluting, shaking hands and posing for photos. One gentleman waiting for his flight to Chicago, shook each veteran's hand. He was not the only one to do so. Halfway up the hall was a men's chorus serenading the entourage.
Dr. Mark Asplund, of Wausau and on his first Honor Flight serving as one of the medics, was particularly struck by the spontaneous nature of the welcome.
"They deserve all of our accolades. The sign says "freedom is not free" and all these individuals have all served our country to make it safe for us.
One guardian, on his fourth Honor Flight, likened veterans to "rock stars."
Outside, the veterans boarded three buses. There were 17 wheelchairs to a bus. Each bus had a captain and medic, and each bus stairway had lieutenants at the top and bottom. There was also a Washington-area tour guide on each bus to add some local wisdom along the way.
It was to be a rainy, drippy day in Washington, but the rains held off until after the first stop at the World War II Memorial. There they took a group shot, as they always do, with the veterans all lined up in several long rows with the monument's fountains in the near background and the Lincoln Memorial far in the distance.
The Never Forgotten Honor Flight veterans all wear bright yellow jackets; the guardians are in green. Thompson said it's an homage to the Green Bay Packers' green and gold. While at the WWII Memorial, a Kansas Honor Flight group arrived wearing Jayhawk blue and red.
The WWII Memorial includes a large oval colonnade of granite pillars with bronze sculptures, each dedicated to a state in the union, and several fountains. Besides the photo, the Honor Flight organizers held a service to remember fallen veterans. A family from North Carolina, in town for a national high school debate competition, wondered what it was all about and stayed for the entire service. They were not the only ones to do so.
Soon it was time for lunch on the bus as they motored around on a tour of some of Washington's sights - the Navy Memorial, the White House and Capitol building to name a few. A police escort allowed the buses access to all sorts of lane changes, red lights and wrong way lanes. The tour guide mentioned several times about how bad traffic can be in Washington, but somehow the Honor Flight buses never found a traffic jam.
The light rainy early afternoon was spent walking between the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam War Memorial and Korean War Memorial. The walkways were a bit slippery, but the veterans and their guardians took their time, as these were key stops. The bronze soldiers walking in their rain gear at the Korean Memorial looked dressed for the occasion.
Many of the veterans spent a long time at the Vietnam Memorial even in the rain, and with the help of ledgers nearby, finding the names of comrades and relatives who died during the war. There were many flowers and other items left at the wall.
The tour continued with a stop at the Marines Memorial with a statue of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima.
Among the World War II veterans on the flight was Dorothy Parker, 93, of Pickerel. She was a machinists mate in the Marines in 1945-46 in Southern California and particularly liked the Marines Memorial.
She said she earned $57 a month working along side the men fixing planes.
Her guardian for the trip was her granddaughter Katie Nelson, of Park Falls.
Nelson said she and her family had bugged her grandmother for years about going, and she was honored to come along.
"Every veteran should go, every veteran should try it," said Parker sitting in her wheelchair at the base of the statue.
"And every family should try to ask because it is a great experience," added Nelson.
Stand on guard
The buses then headed to Arlington National Cemetery so the veterans could view the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. Many remarked how this was the most emotional part of the trip.
Afterward, back on the bus a member of the honor guard came on and took questions from the veterans. "What sort of rifle was that? How often do you clean it? Is it loaded? How long are the shifts? Is it guarded 24 hours? What are your other duties? How long is the tour of duty? Are there any women guards?
After a drive by the Pentagon and up to the nearby Air Force Memorial, the buses parked there. While some of the veterans got out to walk around and others stayed on the bus to eat their boxed dinner, a group of youths from a Texas church came on the buses and shook each veteran's hand, thanking them for their service.
Soon it was back to the airport and back on the airplane to head home. While it had been a wet day, it had not dampened the veterans' spirits.
Pam Bonczyk, of Weyerhauser, was guardian for her grandpa, Frank Bonczyk, also of Weyerhauser. He was among the Korean War era veterans. He served in the Army in Germany for two years.
Frank's wife, Gertie, was among the many spouses left behind for the day in Wausau. The Honor Flight organized a luncheon for them.
Pam, a veteran herself having served with the National Guard in Iraq in 2005, said she enjoyed spending time with her grandpa as he visited the various memorials for the first time.
"It's been a good bonding experience between me and him," she said. "The part he liked the most was when we got to the airport. Everybody was cheering him on."
"The whole trip was great," said Frank. "Everything. The best time ever."
Many of the veterans were tired from the long day, but organizers knew there was much more ahead, including an inflight "mail call" where each veteran received a packet of letters from their loved ones and a box of cookies.
The plane landed back at Central Wisconsin Airport just after 10 p.m. It was dark outside and quiet in the terminal as the veterans got off the plane. Much different than when they had left. They were told to line up with their guardians, and like good soldiers, they did. After everyone had deplaned, they were led back into the main terminal where they were greeted by a throng of family, friends, community members and veterans groups.
The long main hallway was lined six or more deep on either side of welcoming public. There was a high school band, a half dozen honor guards, kids with signs, adults with signs, smiles all around.
Thompson said the goal of the welcome home party is to give the veterans the welcome home they deserve, and in many cases, the welcome home they never got. Once again, putting the "Honor" in "Honor Flight."
Outside the airport was a long line of motorcycles from veterans groups to give the veterans' buses an escort back to their Wausau hotel.
Campbell said the idea of the Honor Flight was to get the veterans to see their memorials in Washington, but when they fill out their surveys afterward the memorials are often further down the list. The top things tend to be "people things" like: meeting and talking with other veterans, the reception they received from strangers in Washington, the mail call on the return flight, and the welcome home back at the Wisconsin airport.
He said he hopes more veterans from Iron County will sign up for the Honor Flight.
Locals wait their chance
David Gentile, of Mercer, said he's No. 600 on the waiting list. He's a Vietnam veteran, having served two tours in 1968-1970.
He's unsure when he'll get to go, figuring it'll be at least a year and half.
"They do approximately 100 veterans per flight and they do four flights a year," he said. "They basically go when you signed up, but there are people ahead of you. I'm a Vietnam veteran, there's Korean War veterans and there's still some World War II veterans - they go to the head of the line."
He heard about it through the Wisconsin Veterans Affairs Office years ago. "Our post donated $100 to them to get started," he said.
Gentile said he's been a member of the VFW since 1968 and is the longtime quartermaster for the Mercer/Manitowish Waters Area VFW Post 9536
"I want to see all these different monuments including World War II - my father was in World War II," he said. "I was in the Seabees, they have a whole Seabee monument there."
Other Mercerites on the waiting list include Walter "Buddy" Georgi, Allen Hardinger and Jim Sullivan.
Former Iron County Sheriff Bob Bruneau, of Hurley, served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War from 1968-71. He made application for the Honor Flight in November 2015 and sits at No. 254 on the waiting list.
He said a nurse suggested the flight to him when she found out he was a veteran.
"First I filled out a card, then an application, and now I'm on the waiting list," Bruneau said.
He, too, is interested in seeing the various monuments, beside the Vietnam War Memorial. He said many of his family members served in various branches of the military. "My dad was a baker in World War II, and I lost an uncle on the USS Indianapolis when it went down in the Pacific in 1945."
For more information, visit neverforgottenhonorflight.org.