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Members of a military honor guard stand at attention as Army veteran Ron Raczak arrives at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, just as a downpour of rain subsides prior to an Honor Flight ceremony that paid tribute to veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Members of a military honor guard stand at attention as Army veteran Ron Raczak arrives at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, just as a downpour of rain subsides prior to an Honor Flight ceremony that paid tribute to veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — More than 100 veterans — some standing, others in wheelchairs — gathered shoulder-to-shoulder Wednesday in front of the World War II Memorial, saluted the American flag and sang the national anthem in unison.

The veterans were part of the first Honor Flight in 17 months. The Honor Flight Network, which sends veterans to Washington to see the war memorials, suspended flights at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.

“Honor Flight trips have long been called, ‘the experience of a lifetime’ for veterans, but today’s long-awaited return has made the emotions of experiencing these memorials indescribable,” said David Smith, president and chairman of the Honor Flight Network board of directors.

Wednesday’s Honor Flight was the first of 124 scheduled flights for the remainder of 2021. In total, about 8,300 veterans are scheduled to come through Washington in that time frame.

After a heavy rain Wednesday afternoon, the sun broke through the clouds just in time for a short ceremony. The 113 veterans on the Honor Flight gathered for photos, then a Color Guard presented flags. The group recited the Pledge of Allegiance, sang the national anthem, listened to taps and took a moment of silence. They also took a few minutes to walk around the memorial before loading back onto their charter buses, which would take them to their next stop.

The veterans in Washington on Wednesday came from Chicago. Their group included 76 Vietnam War veterans, 34 Korean War veterans and 3 World War II veterans.

Navy veteran Steve Williams takes in the sights at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, at the conclusion of an Honor Flight ceremony that paid tribute to veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Navy veteran Steve Williams takes in the sights at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, at the conclusion of an Honor Flight ceremony that paid tribute to veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. (Carlos Bongioanni/STARS AND STRIPES)

Vietnam War veteran Steven Williams, 73, was part of the group. Williams, a Navy veteran from Downers Grove, Ill., had never been to Washington, D.C., and he hadn’t been on an airplane in 20 years. He signed up for an Honor Flight several years ago and was put on the waitlist.

“When they called, I was surprised, actually,” Williams said. “I didn’t think I’d ever get called.”

Billy Reed, 75, was also surprised to get the call. Reed, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, joined the Honor Flight waitlist in 2007. He and four other veterans from his post-traumatic stress disorder group were all included on the same flight, he said.

Army veteran Billy Reed, right, shares a laugh with fellow veterans at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, prior to the start of an Honor Flight ceremony that paid tribute to veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Army veteran Billy Reed, right, shares a laugh with fellow veterans at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, prior to the start of an Honor Flight ceremony that paid tribute to veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

Carol Harlow, communications officer for the Honor Flight Network, said the 2021 season would be abbreviated. Typically, about 25,000 veterans are invited to Washington on Honor Flights each year from March through November.

Besides the shorter season, there are fewer veterans this year because the group is trying to implement social distancing. In addition, the network is requiring all veterans, guardians and volunteers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or take a coronavirus test 72 hours before the flight departs, Harlow said.

The network is planning for multiple groups to arrive during the weekend of Sept. 11, as well as Veterans Day on November 11. The group is expected to reach the milestone in October of providing 250,000 trips to veterans in the 16 years since Honor Flight was founded.

Marine Corps veteran Gene Meske arrives at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, as the rain pours down prior to an Honor Flight ceremony that paid tribute to veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Marine Corps veteran Gene Meske arrives at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, as the rain pours down prior to an Honor Flight ceremony that paid tribute to veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)
A moment of silence is observed at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, during an Honor Flight ceremony that paid tribute to veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
A moment of silence is observed at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, during an Honor Flight ceremony that paid tribute to veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)
Air Force veteran Mike DiCosola takes in the sights at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, at the conclusion of an Honor Flight ceremony that paid tribute to veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Air Force veteran Mike DiCosola takes in the sights at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, at the conclusion of an Honor Flight ceremony that paid tribute to veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)
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