La Crosse's 16th Freedom Honor Flight sent 87 area veterans to Washington D.C. to visit the memorials in their honor. It was an early start to a Saturday morning for the 68 Korean War, 14 World War II and 5 Vietnam Veterans ready to board the 16th Freedom Honor Flight.
Since 2008 the Freedom Honor Flight organization has given area veterans the chance to see the memorials built in honor of those who served. But it's not just the places they get to visit on this trip, it's the people that make the experience an unforgettable one.
The walk to board the plane at La Crosse Regional Airport is made special with Boy Scouts, VFW members, and volunteers all standing watch. The beginning to a 17 hour day that flew by but at the same time will be frozen in memory for those lucky enough to go along.
Upon landing in Washington D.C. the veterans received a heroes welcome. It's overwhelming for both the veterans and their guardians, some accompanying a father, a brother, or even a stranger they met just weeks ago at orientation.
The veterans are welcomed by a band playing the military theme songs. People young and old line up to shake their hands, and give their thanks. One group makes it a tradition to be at the Honor Flight's arrival. Members of the DC alumni group of the Leilani School in Hawaii are sure to welcome every veteran arriving.
Susan Santoro and Lanai Ferguson are in that alumni group. "You can't describe the excitement in their face, to do something so simple brings them so much joy just to meet them here coming off the plane," said Lanai.
What did the veterans think of the outpouring? "It was pretty special, very nice, really great it's a nice celebration," said William Moline, who served in the Wisconsin National Guard in Hawaii. "They treat ya like the king it's a beautiful day," added Bob Smith, who was in the Air Force during the Korean War.
The first stop in D.C. is the World War II memorial honoring the 16 million who served in the most devastating war in world history. Only 14 veterans from that war are with us on the flight. One of those is 92-year-old Jack Dawley from Sparta.
At just 19 Dawley served in the Army in a field hospital. "An extremely difficult experience to have," explained Dawley's daughter Jackie, who was his guardian on the trip.
Mary Kime from Merrillan, WI was one of 350,000 women to serve in the war. "I was one of the 13th WAC's that ever landed on foreign soil, that's when they first let us go and of course I volunteered right away," said Kime.
She's one of only two women on the 16th Honor Flight. "I enjoyed every minute I hope I can live to tell about this", said the 91-year-old.
Enjoying every minute and capturing every memorial is important to chaperone Sue and her veteran Albert Landherr from Austin, MN. Even though they didn't know each other before this trip, the two poke fun and bicker at each other like they've been friends for years.
"i had a wonderful time, I had one of the best guides. She picked on me all day long calling me a trouble maker," joked Landherr, who spent four years in the Navy, 38 months on a ship in Korea purifying salt water into fresh water.
"I had fun in the navy people might think I'm crazy I did have fun and I'm in the nursing home and they think I'm crazy there too, I'll have fun wherever I go," Landherr said.
Bob Smith and Virgil Mehus served stateside during the Korean War. Mehus was drafted against his better wishes and said back then almost everyone was drafted. Smith tells everyone he "flew a desk" working as electronic maintenance in Kansas. They marveled at the realistic detail of the Korean War Memorial.
At the memorial 19 stainless steel statues stand in honor of the 36,574 lives lost during the war. The faces etched into the granite mural are based on actual photographs of unidentified American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.
The Korean War Veterans take up the majority of spots on this years trip, the Vietnam Veterans, the least. Gary Buros grew up in Westby, he was one of five Vietnam Veterans on the trip. He served in the Army in Vietnam.
"You make the best of it, you see lot of good times and lot of bad. I don't wish it onto anybody but it was an experience," said Buros, who was exposed to Agent Orange during his year and a half in Vietnam. He's undergone chemotherapy for three years and has a bone biopsy scheduled in November.
"It's a very good experience. A lot of these elderly people I think have bottled up a lot of things from the war and service time that they never exposed. Seeing the monuments is a release for them and it did them good," added Buros' younger brother Gordy.
A good day comes full circle with a welcome home fit for heroes, the men and women who bravely served our country and fought for our freedom are finally given the thanks they deserve.
The Freedom Honor Flight relies 100% on donations to make each trip possible. Countless hours and volunteers help coordinate each step of the flight. Pat Stephens, Honor Flight President, estimated each flight cost $100,000.
For more information on the flight, to sign up or to donate, visit FreedomHonorFlight.org.