Honor Flight brings monuments to life for veterans

Bird song enlightens the silence at Arlington National Cemetery

Hamilton County father and son duo LeRoy and Rory Johnson made the Brushy Creek Honor Flight together Wednesday. Both father and son are veterans of the U.S. Marine Corps and took time to reflect at the Iwo Jima memorial. Dad LeRoy served from 1958 through 1962, while Rory served from 1992 to 1996.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As dawn was breaking on a day that would stretch deep into the night, more than 160 veterans, guardians, medical personnel, and volunteers boarded a Sun Country Boeing 737 at the Fort Dodge Regional Airport Wednesday for a journey that was decades in the making for so many of these men and women who served the nation from the Korean War, through peace time, and Vietnam.

“This has meant everything to me,” said Dennis Betts, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran from Guthrie Center. “This is something I never thought I would be able to see.”

Betts was taking in the sights and sounds of rushing water as the fountains of the Navy Memorial cascaded skyward and then spilled downward in a never-ending display under a bright sun in Washington, D.C.

The day was long and hot for many, but clearly one they will long remember.

This journey, as always, was brought together by the Brushy Creek Honor Flight Chapter. Veterans praised board members for the organization and attention to detail for every facet of the day, from the fundraising that made it possible to the welcome home when the day was done.

After a smooth flight, veterans streamed through Dulles International Airport where they were greeted with flags waving and cheers of thanks, even a violin troupe playing military anthems. There were school children, moms with their kids, and retirees, each taking time away from their own day to deliver a long-awaited wellspring of praise to these veterans for their service to the nation.

While Honor Flights always receive respect in the metropolitan D.C. area, a step-on guide for one of the three buses that would be their home on wheels for the next several hours said that on this day the veterans were receiving an extra special escort through the busy streets of Virginia that doesn’t always happen.

Police literally had traffic stopped at every entrance to the interstate to speed the journey to the first monuments of the day. At least eight motorcycle officers guided the procession until it reached the Virginia border at the Potomac River.

Drivers waved and patiently gave the right of way to these veterans, who were amazed at the greeting they received. Even foreign tourists at the airport stopped to join the applause and then get out their phones to record the cheering and flag waving show of pride and thanksgiving.

Making new friends

Tom Arends, Medford, and Eric Conell, Fort Dodge, were seatmates on the flight and, like so many on the journey, simply enjoyed meeting new people and hearing of the veterans’ experiences.

Arends served in the Air Force security and spent one tour in Vietnam.

“We intercepted Morse code and linguist communications in order to analyze and direct B52 targets,” Arends explained.

One of 12 children, he comes from a family with a long line of service to the nation.

“My parents sent five kids to the service, from World War II, to Korea, and Vietnam. We all came home, but I had a brother who lost part of his leg in France in World War II.”

Conell is a Fort Dodge firefighter who has assisted in send-offs and welcome home celebrations for many of the Honor Flights over the years. Wednesday’s trip was his first chance to go in person, serving as an escort for veterans.

The flights always include at least one firefighter and one police officer. They are seated on exit rows of the airplane, where FAA requirements dictate strong hands be ready to serve in the event of an emergency. For Conell, the journey was an opportunity to deepen his service to veterans.

“I’ve just enjoyed shaking hands and getting to know people,” Conell said. “Made a lot of positive memories.”

Pondering Lincoln’s hands

The first stop of the day took veterans to the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Wall, and Korean War Memorial. These three sites, where many other smaller memorials are also located, are within a short walking distance of each other on the National Mall.

Veterans were often short on words as they walked through towering spaces.

“Breathtaking,” said Barb Bianchi, of Fort Dodge, as she climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Bianchi worked in air traffic control when she served in the Air Force from 1974 through 1983.

“It’s awe-inspiring,” said Daniel Hearn. The Fort Dodge veteran served in the Navy from 1974 through 1977.

Lincoln’s hands — one at rest, one seemingly clenched on the towering figure of the memorial caught the attention of Jerry Bean, a 1966-67 Vietnam veteran from Steamboat Springs.

Cast from molds made of Lincoln’s own hands in 1860, the molds were originally both in a “loose fist,” according to the National Park Service. Sculptor Daniel Chester French chose to relax the right hand, while keeping the left hand in a fist. The nps.gov website notes that the contrasting positions are often interpreted as showing strength on one hand, and compassion on the other.

A Rising Wall

It begins with barely a notice, just a low strip of black granite with one name, and then another, and another.

Then, the black wall rises higher and the list of names grows until it is almost overpowers visitors. With more than 58,000 names of men and eight women — all nurses — who gave their lives in Vietnam, it is often regarded as the most-visited site in all of Washington, D.C.

“It makes me very, very sad,” said Gary Stewart, a 1970-71 Navy veteran from Jackson, Minnesota. “They were all so young.”

Stewart served in the Philippines and Gulf of Tonkin aboard the USS Richard Bonhomme, an attack aircraft carrier.

The Korean War Memorial, with its striking figure of soldiers slogging through the terrain, more names, more images on walls of granite, and a stop at the Vietnam’s Women’s Memorial rounded out the morning.

More than 7,500 women served in Vietnam. The nurses on the memorial are named for three virtues; Faith has her head bowed in prayer, Hope looks Heavenward; Charity tends to an injured soldier.

World War II Memorial honors the home front

After a box lunch on the bus, veterans were able to step outside again at the World War II memorial. Dedicated in 2004, long after memorials to more recent wars, one guide noted that after the war, veterans went home and built small memorials in their own states and communities. World War II veterans were also quite busy, rebuilding a nation and raising the Baby Boom generation.

As the guide, a retired teacher originally from Ohio who spent her career in Virginia described it, the World War II memorial is different from most in that it does not honor just veterans, but also all Americans on the home front. From Rosie the Riveter taking over the factories, to the school kids who did scrap drives, and homemakers who planted Victory Gardens, it took a united nation to lead the Allies to ultimate victory.

Unlike early Honor Flights that were heavily populated with WW II veterans, there were no veterans from that era on Wednesday’s flight. However, the guide noted that the veterans of Korea and Vietnam who were children in the 1940s were indeed “home-front veterans” of WW II.

Still, here was at least one flag from the casket of World War II veteran escorted by a local volunteer throughout the day and then returned to the family with photos of the journey.

The Stillness of Arlington

One of the most anticipated stops of the day was Arlington National Cemetery for the 4 p.m. Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The precision-laden procedure included two wreath-layings by student groups and the solemn playing of Taps for each wreath.

The red shirts of the Brushy Creek veterans ringed three sides of the large platform for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Honor Flight veterans are given premium access at Arlington and are the only buses allowed to drive directly to the adjacent amphitheater. Veterans stood in somber silence as the guards marched off 21 paces, inspected the guns of the new guards at the changing, and took their place at the Tomb. Service members saluted during the wreath ceremony; civilians put their hands to their hearts.

Throughout the ceremony, the only sound was the songbirds. Even school children, who were the other major component of attendees at the Changing of the Guard, stood in respectful silence.

While veterans remained quiet for the duration at Arlington, other comments were captured elsewhere throughout the journey.

“It’s been a day filled with wonderful moments,” said Richard Shinn, of Rockwell City. Shinn was officially an escort for the day, but is himself a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Donald Burton, a Korean War veteran from Fort Dodge, said nothing can replace seeing all the monuments up close and personal.

“A picture is a wonderful thing,” he said, “but to see all of this in person makes such an impression.”

John Loder came from Estherville for Wednesday’s flight. He is a Vietnam veteran who served with the U.S. Marine Corps, 1969-72, who finally had a homecoming that was often lacking for his generation.

“I wish all veterans could have an experience like this,” Loder said. “It’s been an honor and a privilege, just an amazing adventure.”


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