REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- On a rainy Saturday night, Ronnie Opolka and Mac McCord were at Huntsville International Airport, holding onto a sign that read "Welcome Home WWII Honor Flight" and a couple of U.S. flags.

The two were among more than 500 people gathered in the lobby area near the exit sign for the airport's concourse April 24, waiting for 106 World War II veterans to disembark from a memorable trip to see their memorial in Washington, D.C. It was the 10th such trip sponsored by Honor Flight Tennessee Valley.

In this case, they were waiting for 87-year-old Joe Opolka of Guntersville, whose service in seven different theaters during WWII makes him a hero in any historian's eyes.

"He was excited about this trip," said his son Ronnie Opolka. "It takes a lot to get him excited. But he was excited. He was also apprehensive about things, like what he was going to eat and what he was going to see, and how tired he would be when he got back."

Nearby, fifth-graders from Heritage Elementary School were getting their own patriotic signs in place to welcome the veterans. Each carried a statue and a letter written by a second-grade student that they would give to the returning veterans.

"Our teacher said they'd only have a few more Honor Flights and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I hope I get to meet a veteran," said fifth-grader Julie Dend.

Fifth-grader Lauren White has met a WWII veteran - her grandfather, Navy veteran Robert White.

"He can't come on the trip. But I came here to honor the rest of the veterans. My grandfather probably knew some of them," Lauren said.

The fifth-graders' teachers - Benja Ringler, Beth Clemons and Anthony Graham - have been teaching their students this year about the government and Constitution. The students sent Valentine packages to troops now serving their country and heard about the experiences of 89-year-old veteran Charlie Jones, who visited the class. With the year's patriotic theme, the teachers thought being a part of an Honor Flight Welcome Home event would fit right in with their curriculum.

"We hope they take away from this a sense of their heritage. That they appreciate the sacrifices made on their behalf," Ringler said. "As they get older and they study more about World War II, this experience can be a frame of reference for them."

WWII veteran James McMurphy could feel the appreciation from the crowd that welcomed him back from D.C. The welcome home was a great way to end a day filled with memories, he said.

"I really liked the fellowship of this trip," McMurphy said. "I really admire (organizer) Joe Fitzgerald and all the volunteers who made this day good for me. I don't think I could have made it any better."

For fifth-graders Michael Chavette, Matt Zbell and Noah Friedel, the Welcome Home event took them away from what they would normally be doing on a Saturday night: playing video games or watching a hockey game on television.

"This is better. We get to see people who stood up for us way back then," Matt said.

"They fought for our freedom," added Noah.

"There's no real good hockey game on tonight anyway," Michael said.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16