The biannual Freedom Honor Flight took 100 veterans and their guardians from La Crosse to Washington, D.C., on Saturday, May 4, 2024, where they visited memorials built in their honor.

The biannual Freedom Honor Flight took 100 veterans and their guardians from La Crosse to Washington, D.C., on Saturday, May 4, 2024, where they visited memorials built in their honor. (Freedom Honor Flight/Facebook)

LA CROSSE, Wis. (Tribune News Service) — As the hangar doors opened at Colgan Air Services, the journey ahead to the National Mall was rung in by the sound of turning gears and family cheers inside the hangar bay.

Besides the two public ceremonies bookending the trip, many veterans from the tri-state area experienced a quiet trip around the nation’s capital. The silence was not melancholy or solemn, rather pure concentration and awestruck feelings as they visited monuments built to honor the country’s military heroes.

“It’s one thing to see these memorials, but I don’t think I’ll ever be around this many veterans at the same time again,” said Vietnam veteran Dennis Decker. “It feels special. It feels awesome.”

The biannual Freedom Honor Flight took 100 veterans and their guardians from La Crosse to Washington, D.C., on Saturday, where they visited memorials built in their honor.

The Freedom Honor Flights began in 2008 with the same cause: helping veterans in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa travel to the capital at no expense to them. Since 2008, the Freedom Honor Flight program has flown 30 flights of veterans to D.C.

This flight brought one World War II veteran, seven Korean War veterans and 92 Vietnam War veterans along for the monumental day trip.

‘No ranks, no service, no hometowns’

The Freedom Honor Flight tour is an intricate machine. One round-trip flight, three meals and four buses are just a sliver of the coordination required to make the trip successful.

The whole operation is run entirely by volunteers. The only people paid for their time are paramedics and physicians from Mayo Clinic Health System and Gundersen Health System, who travel along and whose expense is covered by the health care organizations.

Each veteran is assigned to a bus with a corresponding military alphabet sign from alpha through delta.

“I was really surprised by the coordination here,” said Jerome Zais of Chippewa Falls. “We hit some snags here and there, but nothing ever put us behind or ruined another thing in the trip.”

Seeing the nation’s monuments was a humbling moment for many veterans. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, veterans are faced with thousands of names of those who died in the Vietnam War inscribed in glossy black granite.

“No ranks, no service, no hometowns,” a memorial guide tells veteran Richard Orth. “Every person on this wall is equal.”

Dozens of veterans collected names from the wall by pushing pencils across slips of paper, lifting the inscribed letters from the wall.

“Jimmy Ray ... Jimmy Ray Callison,” Gary Nummerdor said to himself.

Scanning the panels, the De Soto resident searched for three names for a friend back home who also served: Jimmy Ray Callison, Larry Gilbert Dahl and Raymond Lee Armentrout.

“He wanted to be here. He was on the list and ready, but he stayed home for his wife, who got sick,” Nummerdor explained. “She had issues with her kidney and was on the transplant list, but when it came around she was too old. Then she developed cancer. And my friend, he said he had to stay with her.”

Nummerdor’s friend served in the 359th Transportation Co. with Callison and Dahl. The company was responsible for moving fuel between key battlegrounds in Vietnam. Callison helped run a gun truck nicknamed Brutus that defended the 359th Co. convoy.

Dahl and others in the 359th inherited Brutus after an enemy ambush claimed Callison and wounded two others.

Nummerdor held his three collected names close to his chest as he left the wall. Zais said he was also able to locate the name of someone he served with and was glad the process was easy given the help of volunteers at the wall.

Generational experience

Every veteran is accompanied by a guardian who helps them around Washington, D.C., for the day. Some are assigned random volunteers, others choose friends, and some bring along family members.

Decker, the Vietnam veteran from Winona, brought along his granddaughter Madelyn Bosch, who currently serves in the U.S. Navy.

Decker served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. After his service, he settled in Winona to work for the Army Corps of Engineers on a dredge boat. He worked his way up from deckhand to master first-class pilot before retiring from his 34-year career.

Bosch’s white “Dixie cup” service hat and Decker’s Vietnam veteran baseball cap were strong complements to each other as they walked around the National Mall. Decker said he hated wearing the Dixie cap, but Bosch said the twofold garrison caps were worse to wear.

Toward the end of the trip, Decker strode across the World War II Memorial with a wide smile beaming from under his long mustache.

Decker and Bosch said they found the hanging of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery to be the highlight of the trip.

At the top of every hour, a new soldier is rotated into guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The previous and incoming guards both have their weapons checked and go through an intense inspection before starting their shift at the memorial.

Incoming guard Jessica Kwiatkowski was the first female infantry soldier to earn the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Identification Badge in 2023. Like every guard, she served her post in total silence.

“I saw that female soldier out there and was just like, ‘Go her,’ ‘cause that was cool,” Bosch said. “I was super surprised by the changing of the guard. The whole presentation to it was really amazing.”

Many veterans on the trip walked up to Bosch and asked her about her service throughout the trip. Decker stood behind Bosch every time with a proud, upright posture.

The final voyage of Kevin Kuchar

Experiences like the Honor Flights take hundreds of volunteers, medical experts, guides and donors to make a trip of this scale happen twice each year.

Without Kevin Kuchar, the amount of manpower already behind the Honor Flights would not be enough. The retired La Crosse medical dispatcher served as the medical coordinator for Honor Flights on almost all 30 flights since 2008.

Kuchar rode stuffed in the back corner of the bus surrounded by chargers for respirators, blood sugar devices and bags full of other key medical equipment. From the back of the caravan, Kuchar made sure every single veteran received any medical attention they needed.

“Unfortunately, the board has demoted me to the position of president,” Kuchar said with his often-used sarcasm. “This is my last one. The position has gotten redundant, and I’m taking up the spot another veteran could be taking.”

By helping coordinate resources and schedules over the years, Kuchar effectively raised a team of Honor Flight experts so well that he can transition out of medical coordination and let paramedics take over.

Kuchar leaves behind more than that. While not officially a tour guide, he treats any nearby passengers with trivia and insight about each destination.

Even as the day wound down and people grew tired from a full day of travel, Kuchar would perk up at every corner to share a tidbit about the sights whizzing by the bus. Every shared piece was as heartfelt as the last, and Kuchar made the most of his last venture to the nation’s capital with a troop of veterans with him.

As the bus left the National Mall, Kuchar shared about himself with no more monuments to describe. His personal photo album is full of explorations in Russia, weeklong hikes in Scotland and intricate crafts made on his personal time for friends and family.

For his last flight, Kuchar got the spotlight for a brief moment on the plane ride home but was quick to turn the attention back to stars of the show. The happiness he derived from more than a decade of flying veterans brought him all the satisfaction he needed to leave the flying behind.

The veterans will reconvene to see their new friends again for a breakfast banquet in July. Many will likely bring their new challenge coins awarded to them on the flight home, a new addition to the many traditions of the Honor Flights.

The next Freedom Honor Flight will take off Sept. 21.

(c)2024 the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.)

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