The past week was one of the most memorable and awe-inspiring weeks of my life. What I thought would be a simple little business trip with some vacation attached turned into the kind of event I wish everyone could experience in their lifetime.
A group of several veterans from Cass County were selected to participate in an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. While we hear of these flights and know some local veterans have had the opportunity to participate, this time I had a chance to travel ahead and meet these heroes as they started the D.C. phase of their trip. I was looking ahead at it as work, I came away thinking of it as a blessing.
While I spent much of the time with John Foster, I also got to mingle with many others. There were four from southern Cass County and nine total from the county, along with others from across the Midwest.
After being sent out from Kansas City as heroes, they were escorted to Washington where they received VIP treatment and got to see the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War memorials along with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, the Marine Corp and Air Force memorials, as well as the 911 Memorial outside of the Pentagon.
They were then brought home to a hero’s welcome.
Arriving before their buses, I walked around the World War II Memorial. It was impressive, depressing, inspiring and humbling. I thought of my uncles who fought in the Pacific, I thought of all the newsreels and movies I have seen through the years.
There was a reason this was known as the greatest generation. But as impressive as the memorial was, it was just a bunch of rock compared to how it looked when a large group of veterans were lined up for a photograph.
Men ranging in age from their 60s to the oldest, who was introduced as 100 years old. Many were in wheelchairs. Many used walkers and canes. But all came with a wide-eyed look of awe at the events which were transpiring in front of them.
The group then boarded up and went to the Korean and Vietnam memorials that are both adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial.
I had seen the Korean Memorial before and all I remembered was how eerie it looked. It still looks eerie, but walking with the men who were contemporaries of those honored, those feelings turned magically to an understanding of what this memorial represents to them.
They are forgotten veterans because unlike the Great War or World War, Korea was a police action which if it weren’t for a long-running television sitcom might not ever be remembered. Yet tens of thousands of Americans and their allies died in the conflict.
And then it was over to Vietnam. I had seen the wall before. It is striking to see panel after panel of hundreds of names which gives way to thousands of names, all of whom were people who died in an unpopular war which really resolved nothi
I had never seen before a statue called “Three Soldiers” which is three GIs in their combat gear that stand facing the wall.
The interpretation is these three are forever looking at the names of those who never came home. And again, I was struck by the humility and appreciation of the Vietnam veterans, most very little older than me. They are truly a forgotten bunch of heroes who didn’t get a warm welcome home. In fact, many were ridiculed and dismissed like some kind of criminal. But on this day they were honored.
In recent years when I meet young soldiers returning home, I try to thank them for their service. I hadn’t thought about it much for the older veterans because I guess in mind, they had forgotten it all and moved on. I learned they haven’t and they won’t. Their sacrifices are part of their everyday lives. I found myself speaking with may of these men just shooting the breeze, but I ended every conversation with thank you for your service. I am going to try and make that a permanent habit.
Since I was taking pictures and writing notes at most of the stops, I didn’t participate in the clapping these men earned most everywhere they went. After their Arlington Cemetery stop, I could no longer stay with them so I returned to a tour of the cemetery and they went on with the rest of their day. As my group was nearing the visitor’s center which was my drop off site, another group of veterans were arriving on another Honor Flight tour. My guide said we are going to pull over here and make way for the superheroes to come through. I joined in standing and applauding as they went by.
I would hope all veterans get a chance to make such a trip. I am not a veteran, but I could feel their pride. I am not a veteran so I could not feel their pain. I am not a veteran, but I enjoy a great way of life because so many men and women like these are veterans.
To them all, thank you for your service.