On Saturday, Oct. 29, I had the distinct honor and privilege to join the Badger Honor Flight as a guardian for my father-in-law on a trip to Washington, D.C.
This was my first opportunity to participate in an Honor Flight, and I jumped at the chance.
For those who are not familiar with the Honor Flight program, their website possibly explains it best: “The Honor Flight Network is a national network of independent hubs working together to honor our nation’s veterans with an all-expenses paid trip to the memorials in Washington, D.C. — a trip many of our veterans may not otherwise be able to take. Participation in an Honor Flight trip gives veterans the chance to share this momentous trip with other veterans, to remember friends and comrades lost, and share their stories and experiences with each other.”
The Badger Honor Flight is one of several Honor Flight programs in Wisconsin. The flight departs from Dane County Regional Airport in Madison, Wis.
Our flight had 91 veterans participate. One from the Korean War and the rest were from the Vietnam War era.
Each veteran was accompanied by a guardian — someone who would attend to them and not leave their side the entire trip.
My father-in-law, Mel Waller, is a Marine who served in Vietnam. He was joined by his brother, Lloyd Waller, who was a Soldier in Vietnam. They both live in Adams, Wis.
Lloyd’s guardian was Mel’s son, Mike Waller. Mike and I are both Navy veterans. He served during Desert Storm, and I’m still in the Navy Reserve.
Mel and Lloyd served in an era where their service to our country wasn’t as respected or appreciated as those who came before or after them. It was a thankless time where many Americans would rather cuss you out and spit on your uniform than welcome you home.
Neither one experienced the fanfare of a welcome home when they returned from Vietnam. There weren’t any ticker-tape parades with thousands of onlookers as witnessed at the end of World War II. They were quiet, nondescript affairs with limited family at the airport.
The Honor Flight program is more than just a trip to Washington, D.C. It is also the welcome home that most of our veterans never experienced. It was the welcome they deserved.
As a frequent flyer for the Navy, air travel is second nature for me as I fly several times each year. I was surprised to learn this was Mel’s first flight on an airplane since his return from Vietnam 52 years ago. He was certainly in for an experience of a lifetime.
The day was long. The 4:30 a.m. report time meant most veterans and guardians were up by 2, with a return at 8 p.m.
Did I mention there was a lot of walking during the day? At the end of the day, my phone registered more than 15,000 steps. I was beat. I’m sure the older vets were even more exhausted.
However, through their jubilance, none of them showed any signs. Their excitement drove them through their exhaustion.
Our flight departed Madison at 7 am, flew direct and landed in Washington, D.C. at 9:30 a.m. local time. Our first stop was Arlington National Cemetery.
We were encouraged to visit a few of the sites near the Amphitheater, so we visited the Challenger Shuttle Memorial and mast from the USS Maine before we moved over to watch the Changing-of-the-Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
It is difficult to describe the ceremony which occurs every 30 minutes other than to say “wow!” The Guard Soldiers are polished, rehearsed, precise. Their professionalism is reflected in every calculated step. The crowd of more than 500 watched in silent reverence.
After a not-so-quick veteran photo on the Amphitheater steps (try rounding up 91 veterans in a National Cemetery), we loaded the bus for the U.S. Air Force Memorial.
This memorial is relatively new — built after the 9/11 attacks. It consists of three curved spires that tower into the sky, in addition to numerous marble panels and statues on the ground. In fact, the spires fill the airspace that Flight 77 flew through before striking the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
After a quick lunch, we loaded the bus and traveled to the National Mall, where we took in the Lincoln Memorial and walked through the Korean War Memorial, and Vietnam War Memorial Wall.
The Korean War Memorial has increased in size since the last time I visited. However, the 19 larger-than-life statues depicting troops emerging from the tree line, wearing ponchos to fend off the cold Korean air, still stood as the impressive focal point of the memorial.
The Vietnam War Memorial Wall was a short walk to the other side of the reflecting pool. The Wall lists the names of all Americans killed in Vietnam from 1959 to 1975.
It honors those Mel and Lloyd knew and served with who didn’t make it home.
Mike and I followed as they walked through, quietly reading names as they moved. On my phone, I looked up the names of two Soldiers our families knew who were killed in Vietnam, and we located them on the Wall. I could only imagine the emotions both Mel and Lloyd were going through.
After a hike up the Lincoln Memorial steps to see the man, himself seated overlooking the National Mall, we returned to the bus for a drive to the World War II Memorial.
The World War II Memorial is an impressive architectural design that complements and anchors the other memorials.
It is located at the other end of the reflecting pool across from the Lincoln Memorial and sits in the shadow of the impressive Washington Monument.
In the middle is an oval pool with two massive fountains. The memorial is lined with pillars recognizing the U.S. states and territories that fought in the war. While we didn’t have any World War II veterans on the trip, you could tell out of the respect shown that our veterans grew up with the stories of their parents and family who served before them.
Our last stop was the 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon. The memorial honors those who died at the Pentagon and on American Airlines Flight 77 on Sept. 11, 2001.
The unique design features a bench for every victim, organized by the year they were born. The benches are all oriented following the flight path of the plane before it struck the Pentagon.
The flight back to Madison was direct and a short 90 minutes. The veterans were honored with Operation Mail Call, where each one received a packet of letters and notes from family, friends, veterans and schoolchildren who wrote to them thanking them for their service and welcoming them home.
From the reactions of Mel and Lloyd and all the veterans, this was as impactful and touching as the memorials themselves.
Upon landing and arrival in Madison, the veterans were about to receive their proper homecoming.
More than 2,000 people filled the terminal, many with signs and banners thanking the veterans for their service and welcoming them home.
Cheers and patriotic music filled the air. People reached out to shake their hands and thank them.
Mel and Lloyd patiently waited their turn as they were close to the end of the line. They descended the escalator separately, then walked through together when they were called.
Mike and I followed and joined in their celebration. More than 20 of their family members and friends came out to honor them and the Waller boys stopped for a few moments for hugs and kisses before moving on down the hundreds of feet of the gauntlet of well-wishers.
This whole experience was surreal and moving for me, watching these veterans experience the memorials and sites. It was an immense honor to be asked by Mel to join as his guardian and share his experiences during his day.
I have to acknowledge the Badger Honor Flight staff and volunteers and all those who assisted us along the way. American Airlines employees, National Park Rangers, tour guides, etc. All were warm and kind and welcomed our veterans at each stop.
The Honor Flight Network is looking for names of qualified veterans to join future flights, and also volunteers to serve as Guardians.
They have flights from Madison, La Crosse, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Wausau and Superior. The investment of your time and money is quite worth it.
I would highly recommend anyone who is able-bodied to volunteer to be a guardian for a veteran who may not have family available to attend. You will never forget the experience.
I am looking forward to the opportunity to join my father as his guardian on a future Honor Flight.
To find Honor Flights in Wisconsin, visit: https://www.wisconsinhonorflight.org.