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EAA AirVenture Oshkosh RSS FeedAn honor to accompany heroes
By Lauran Paine Jr.
 

American Airlines was ready for take-off as veterans aboard the plane for the Old Glory Honor Flight Thursday from the EAA grounds. Photo by Jeannette Merten/for the EAA.

It was my privilege to participate in the Honor Flight on Thursday, July 29, 2010. Its purpose was to fly 80 World War II veterans from Oshkosh to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II Memorial, a place they might otherwise never see. The memorial was built in their honor, so it is fitting that these members of the "the greatest generation" visit it.

It was a day filled with emotion.

The veterans, all now in their 80s and 90s, first gathered in the airport terminal at Wittman Regional Airport to get seat assignments and go through security screening, but it became much more than that. Read more

It became a gathering of soldiers who served 70 years ago. "How you doin'? Where'd you serve? When?" And exclamations like, "I was there! My cousin was killed in that battle. My brother flew that airplane, too!"

I imagined them, 70 years ago, in similar gatherings, perhaps at a train station, saying "Where ya headed?" and exchanging rumors about how the war was going. Maybe they had been dropped off by a parent, a wife, or a girlfriend. But not today. Today a veteran was dropped off, in a wheelchair, by his daughter, who gave him a hug and said, "Have a great day, Dad!" And then each veteran was greeted by their assigned "guardian," who assisted the veteran throughout the day.

Each veteran wore a green polo shirt with the words "Honor Flight" embroidered on it. But it was their ball caps that told the story: "1st Marine Division, 738 MP Bn., USS Redfin, USS Santee, Purple Heart, USS Flasher, Navy, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard" and many VFW hats. Some wore their uniforms, complete with their stripes and patches. One said, "Weighed 161 then; weigh 161 now." Pride on display. Age may have taken some of their agility, but none of their pride.

While boarding an American Airlines 737 on AeroShell Square, the veterans were greeted with music and a flag-waving crowd, a scene that would recur throughout the day. Civil Air Patrol cadets, current military members, and people dressed in period military uniforms also gathered and saluted the veterans, many of whom saluted them back. And then a moment of silence for the fallen, followed by the playing of taps. We hadn't even left, and I was already tearing up.

The flight to Washington, D.C., was great. Every member of the crew was also a volunteer. They flew this trip on their days off. And every one of them had a military connection. That was a special touch…one of many, it turned out, on this day.

As we taxied to our gate at Reagan National Airport, the ground guides on each wingtip waved American flags. As the veterans deplaned they were greeted…again…by music, saluting members of the military, and a clapping, flag-waving crowd. The veterans, ever humble, saluted, mouthed "thank you," and smiled. They were deeply touched…you could tell. This is why Honor Flight exists.

Inside the terminal, the entire concourse, from the gate to the outside sidewalk where the buses were waiting, was lined with another continuous crowd of clapping, flag-waving people. Americans were honoring heroes.

Buses were boarded once again…with a squad of current military troops standing at attention and saluting…and we headed to the World War II Memorial. Upon arriving, it's readily apparent this is a special place, especially to the veterans. Figuratively, the memorial was built by these veterans; it was their service and sacrifice that inspired it.

It is also a somber and reflective place. One veteran left a wreath honoring his fallen buddy. Another said, "I wish my brothers could have seen this." Two of his brothers were killed in the war. Another said, "I never thought I'd live to see this."

board the buses again, we drove by the Korean Memorial and Vietnam Wall. It was obvious these guys honor all veterans. I was wearing my "Vietnam Veteran" hat. One WWII veteran came up to me and said, "Arizona had a deal honoring you guys. The guys there got the homecoming they never got before." It was a poignant moment for me, coming from him.

We then toured Washington, D.C., by bus, seeing the Capitol, White House, and various federal buildings…and Arlington National Cemetery. The somberness and respect of the moment was palpable.

The flight home to Oshkosh was another treat by the special American Airlines crew. Landing at Oshkosh, another flag-waving crowd greeted them. It was a fitting and special homecoming. The veterans were treated to dinner and music and reunited with their families.

Were the veterans tired after this day? Probably, but, like 70 years ago, they did not falter, they did not complain; they did, once again, what they set out to do. They helped make America great; they're still making America great.

It was an honor to be among them.

FUTURE AIRVENTURE DATES: 2014: July 28-Aug. 3; 2015: July 20-26; 2016: July 25-31; 2017: July 24-30
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