Honor Flight: 'It had me just about crying'
Daily Gazette, Sterling, Ill.
A group of people from the Sauk Valley stood in line Thursday at the Quad Cities International Airport. It was 5:48 a.m.
No security required. Just congratulations.
They belonged to the Honor Flight – a program that takes World War II and Korean War veterans to Washington to see war memorials.
Forty-six veterans from Whiteside, Lee, Carroll and Ogle counties were among more than 90 from western Illinois and eastern Iowa to make the trip this week.
Everyone wore a T-shirt that read: “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a veteran.” Veterans sported yellow shirts, and their “guardians” wore blue.
The program gave participants small pouches to hang around their necks, where they could put their driver’s licenses and boarding passes.
Instead of taking off their shoes and belts and walking through scanners, the veterans walked past a line of people, including active-duty soldiers, who congratulated them.
Al Perra of Bureau County said he was looking forward to visiting the World War II memorial.
“[Former Sen.] Bob Dole used to send me letters to donate to it,” the World War II and Korean War veteran said. “I’ll see what my money went to.”
No one could take canes. So a number of veterans used Honor Flight-provided wheelchairs – more so as the day went along.
Of the Sauk Valley veterans, the oldest was 91; the youngest, 75.
It was a long day ahead, even for those much younger.
7:07 a.m. (all times Central)
All 162 people boarded the plane, chartered exclusively for the Honor Flight. In the group were 92 veterans and 70 guardians. Of the veterans, 55 had served during the Korean War and 37 in World War II.
One of those on board was Gary Metivier, anchorman for Davenport, Iowa TV station KWQC-Channel 6. He has written a book on Honor Flight. One veteran asked for his autograph.
Gary and Cherie Baldwin of Mercer County were guardians. Guardians pay $500 each to take the trip, but the Baldwins went for free because they are Gold Star parents, the designation for people whose children died in war.
Their son, Lt. Col. Robert Baldwin, 39, was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 21, 2010. The 2-year anniversary was Friday.
He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was on the schedule.
Cherie choked up while talking about visiting the cemetery. She said she and her husband considered not going because it would be tough emotionally.
But they decided they should.
“Rob would have wanted us to go,” she said.
Early-morning flights usually are quiet, as people use the time to sleep. Not this time. The veterans talked the whole way.
As the plane taxied in, firefighters sprayed the plane – a water cannon salute given to retiring pilots. In this case, it was to recognize the veterans’ service.
Getting ready to leave the plane, Air Force veteran Milton Steege of Fulton was asked whether he had rested.
“I couldn’t fall asleep with all this excitement,” the 84-year-old said.
As they disembarked, the veterans were treated as dignitaries. Honor Flight volunteers from Washington shook the veterans’ hands. World War II-era music played. Flags were draped over air conditioning units.
Some members of the public joined the greeting line.
Elizabeth Bunch and Ruthie Schaeffer, both 21-year-old students from Auburn University in Alabama, were on their way home from studying in Africa. They said they ran into the hoopla and decided to stick around to honor the veterans.
“My boyfriend is an ensign in the Navy,” Bunch said.
While walking through the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Marvin Arians of Sterling said he made the trip to honor those who had fallen in war.
The Korean War Army veteran said he had been on an Honor Flight list for the past 3 years. But organizers gave priority to older World War II veterans and the terminally ill.
“That was the right thing to do,” Arians, 83, said.
The veterans visited the World War II memorial, where they posed for a photo. A congressman from Iowa spoke, and the veterans prayed.
Perra said he enjoyed the monument. He had made $10 donations every 3 months to help build it.
“It was well worth giving money to it,” he said.
He liked the coordination of Honor Flight.
“There isn’t a dull moment,” he said. “They keep you moving.”
The Marine veteran was looking forward most to the Iwo Jima memorial, which honors Marines.
At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, attending soldiers invited four Gold Star relatives to place the wreath during the changing of the guard. A soldier asked the crowd to stand for the ceremony. Many of the veterans arose from their wheelchairs.
On the uphill trail to the tomb, one veteran said, “If there was a bench, I’d sit down.”
Another leaned against a rail as he walked.
On the way back, a veteran said, “It’s funny how those buses seem farther away now.”
Guardians helped the veterans so they wouldn’t fall down the steps. Only a 30-something cameraman tumbled down. He saved his equipment.
In the bus, Dave Woods, one of the organizers, asked veterans, “What did you think of the tomb?”
“It was awesome,” said World War II veteran Lois Steiner, 91, of Sterling.
Roland Mose, a Korean War veteran from Erie, marveled at the monument to the war. It was realistic, he said.
The monument consists of 19 statues that depict a small squad on patrol in Korea.
“Look at the expression on their faces,” Mose, 83, said. ‘’That must have been hard to do.”
U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Colona, stopped at the National Mall, where the Korean War and other memorials are. He spoke with veterans, many of whom are from his district, which includes Sterling and Rock Falls.
The veterans’ arrival at the Quad Cities airport was no quiet affair. After they crossed into the public area, a crowd of hundreds greeted them with applause and cheers. Bagpipe players performed.
The public lined both sides. The veterans shook their hands.
One traveler accidentally ended up in the procession. Asked whether he was confused, he replied, “I’m amazed.”
Afterward, Arians of Sterling said the event choked him up.
“It was the nicest thing I ever had happen,” he said.
World War II veteran Clifford Aughenbaugh, 86, of Compton, called the reception “out of this world.”
“It had me just about crying.”