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Honoring those who came first

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --

I took part in the Greater Peoria Area Honor Flight on Sept. 27, and I had the privilege of being one of the escorts for the veterans on this flight.

The flight left the Peoria, Illinois airport at 6:30 a.m. for Washington D.C. with 75 World War II, Korean War, Vietnam, and Operation Enduring Freedom veterans, escorts, a medical team, and a local camera crew. The men and women who served in the wars - who made our country what it is today - smiled from ear to ear the entire trip. Surrounded by brothers and sisters in arms, there were lots of jokes and memories floating through the airplane cabin.

Once off the plane in Washington D.C., we had a police escort to our first stop at the WWII Memorial. The bright gold stars on the Freedom Wall at the back of the memorial went on for what seemed like miles and stood in stark contrast to the dark wall. Each individual star represents 100 deaths, many of which, at one time, stood next to those who made the flight that day. We slowly moved from the WWII Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial, then to the Vietnam Memorial where the veterans saw their reflections in the thousands of comrades’ names engraved on the wall. The Korean Memorial hit home with a large majority of our group of veterans who were too young to serve in WWII, but were drafted for the Korean War. From there we traveled through the Arlington cemetery, witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Marine Corps Memorial, and the Air Force Memorial.

Exhausted and invigorated we arrived back home to Illinois just after sundown. Waiting quietly around a corner for our group was over 2,000 community members, holding patriotic signs, dressed in red, white, and blue cheering and welcoming home the heroes of the past. There were balloons, a marching band, cheering, laughing, and crying.

 

For some of the veterans, especially those who served during the Vietnam War, this was the first time they truly felt valued for their service. Tears were shed as the veterans were humbled by the support shown that day.

As an active duty member, it was an emotional day seeing and hearing about so many veterans’ incredible stories. I remember one man telling me that after WWII, he was put in charge of the holding compound for Nazi officials who were waiting to face the Nuremberg trials. He was 18 years old at the time. I was incredibly humbled by everything I saw and experienced that day listening to those around me. The most memorable experience, however, was being at my grandfather’s side the entire day as we walked through the memorials and talked about his experience as a Korean War veteran.

I would recommend more people get involved with the honor flight organization in some capacity to honor the heroes of the past.