WASHINGTON, D.C. — “Thank you for your service.”
That was the refrain U.S. military veterans heard over and over Wednesday in Washington, D.C. as hundreds of men and women who served during World War II were brought in from Ohio, Illinois and Missouri as participants in the Honor Flight program.
The non-profit organization pays to transport veterans to the nation’s capital, where they are treated to a day touring the various war memorials and cemeteries in the D.C. area. Flights are planned throughout the year, and veterans who want to go need only to apply at the Honor Flight Network website.
“It’s quite an ego trip,” Thomas Jundanian, 91, said of his day and all the unexpected attention he and the others in his group that flew in from Chicago received.
The WWII veteran, who survived the Battle of the Bulge as an infantryman with the 99th Infantry Division, recalled being captured by the Germans and held for more than four months as a prisoner of war. The pampering and attention he received Wednesday at the World War II memorial was very “uplifting,” he said. “My God, I can’t believe it’s happening… It’s a wonderful experience never to be forgotten.”
Jundanian said seeing the National World War II Memorial choked him up as it brought back a flood of memories of all those from his division who had died.
“I kept seeing the crosses at the Belgium cemetery where most of my division is buried…. One of them I remember as a kid that I went horse-back riding with in Texas … I don’t think he got older than 19 years. He was killed when the Germans attacked us in the Battle of the Bulge. He didn’t get past 19, and I’m getting past 91, so I don’t know what the equity is… After awhile you try to stop thinking about how come I came back and the others didn’t. And finally you make your peace with it and then do the best you can with it for the rest of your life.”
Lt. Cmdr. Jennifer Cline, a naval officer assigned to the Naval Observatory in Washington D.C., said she has volunteered to be a guardian for the vets for 18 or 19 flights over three seasons.
“I get such a joy out of doing this,” Cline said. “My grandfather passed away before the memorial was completed, so I wasn’t able to do this for him. And so I do this in his honor — to honor his memory, and hopefully to make a memorable day for the veterans who come here to D.C.”
Also visiting the WWII memorial Wednesday was Joseph Halicek, 86, who served with the 94th Infantry Division and came with a group from Toledo, Ohio. Appreciative of all the recognition and kind words he received from strangers, Halicek was quick to relate his war experience. In one of many accounts, telling of the fear he and other soldiers in his unit felt as they withdrew from a village that their superiors wanted them to hold, he recalled what he termed “the worst time in my life.”
As they reached a pad of woods on the outskirts of the town of Sinz, he said they looked “and there must have been 30 dead German soldiers there. Our tanks went through there and killed them guys. And I thought, ‘My, they had a mother or girlfriend’ and our guys wanting to get their Lugers, and I said ‘bless the people, I don’t want to touch a thing. You guys are soldiers.’ I couldn’t stand that.”