(WFRV) – It’s Never Too Late To Say ‘Thank You’. It’s a simple phrase but something with the greatest meaning when you take part in an Old Glory Honor Flight. Whether a veteran or a guardian, you know taking part in a flight will change your life forever.
I had the pleasure of being a guardian on Mission 55 with the Old Glory Honor Flight on Wednesday, September 15. From 5 a.m. to the time you hand your veteran off to their families that evening, you have the biggest and most important job of them all – being a guardian of a veteran that put their life on the line so we could be free.
Check-in & Take off
Our orders as guardians were simple that morning – find your veteran- and spend the day with them. It was never about us – it was all about them. Veterans and guardians were at the Appleton International Airport bright and early, after checking in, going through security and getting their picture taken, we would sit and wait, just by the sound in the terminal, they were excited.
I met my veteran while he was waiting in line to get his picture taken. His name is John Braatz, but you can call him Jack, he insists on it, actually. We boarded around 6:15 a.m. and I think sitting on the plane it finally hit me the journey I was about to embark on, being in the presence of 97 war veterans was humbling and emotional, to say the least – but I knew this day wasn’t about me – it was all about them and the man sitting next to me.
Jack and I talked quite a bit during the hour and a half flight – everything from his service to his family. He’s a Vietnam War Vet and when I asked him what he did he chuckled and say “absolutely nothing”. I pushed him for more because even if he thinks he did “nothing”, every soldier did something no matter what it was. Just before he was going to fly out to Vietnam he got sick, after staying home and getting better, he was sent to France inspecting generators at military posts throughout the country. He didn’t say too much about his time there, he moved on asking me what I did for a living and what hobbies I had. I found out he and his wife enjoy traveling, he loves to golf and owns a beautiful red Corvette – which he eagerly showed a picture of.
Washington D.C. – World War II Memorial
We landed in Washington D.C. around 8:15 a.m. at Reagan National Airport, the buzz in the plane as we waited to get off was energetic, I’ve never seen 97 men and women want to get off a plane so fast. Getting off the plane we were greeted by some fan fair – members of an east coast Honor Flight group were cheering for the veterans as they walked through the airport, waving flags, saying “welcome home”. Employees of the airport and people simply waiting to board a flight stood up, clapped, many saying “thank you for your service.”
The itinerary for the day was pretty simple, visit several of the National Monuments and make sure you focus your energy and time on your Veteran. Our first stop was the World War II Memorial and no matter how many times you’ve seen it, it still takes your breath away each time. Jack and I took a lap around, enjoying the views and the sunshine – and he always asked what I wanted to do, even if I pushed him to lead the way because this was HIS day.
The day was well organized and strictly scheduled thanks to the Old Glory Honor Flight bus leaders – many of who started the non-profit here in Northeast Wisconsin. When they said ‘wheels rolling’ at a certain time, you knew you needed to be on your bus at that time.
Lincoln Memorial & Other Memorials
Our next stop was the ‘triangle’, the Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The three memorials where we would spend most of our time while in Washington D.C. Before we could let the masses loose, we had the veterans line up in front of the iconic Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool for a group photo.
If you want to talk about iconic, these pictures have turned into THE picture for the Old Glory Honor Flight. 97 veterans all lined up. 3 Korean War Veterans. 94 Vietnam Veterans. 2 women Vietnam Veterans. The toughest people you’ll ever meet – all in one picture. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial were 50 plus guardians, all proud to be there with them, and for them. It was hard not to tear up watching history in the making.
For many, the next stop was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, one of the most moving pieces in the National Mall. I had the pleasure of tracing two names from the wall for Jack and his wife, just being there for that moment was eye-opening. The lives lost and the memories that many of these men and women still hold close to their hearts were indescribable. Whether words were spoken or not, you knew the impact this wall has.
Jack and I moved along to the Lincoln Memorial. Along the way, we talked about our families and I learned he did a little motorcycle drag racing in his day but he left it at that. Mark my words, I will find out more about that. After snapping a few pictures, we walked over to the Korean War Veterans Memorial which is currently under construction. Even with the fencing around it and the sound of heavy machinery, being around the 19 stainless steel statues memorializing those who fought in the Korean War was moving, especially for our three Korean War Veterans on the flight. Currently, they are constructing a Wall of Remembrance that will have the names of over 36,000 American servicemen and over 7,000 Korean Augmentation to the United States Army Soldiers on that wall.
Arlington National Cemetery
After a tour through Washington D.C. with our amazing bus captain as a tour guide, and a stop at the FDR Memorial and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial we made out way to Arlington National Cemetery to witness one of the most moving moments there, Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Just before 4 p.m. we lined the area, sat at the steps or stood and watched as soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment changed places to guard the Tomb. Just before, a soldier made an announcement that everyone should stand. What I witnessed next brought tears to my eyes – we had a group of veterans in wheelchairs lined up along a fence, two of them stood up from their wheelchairs, at attention. Just beyond them, I saw the daughter and guardian of one of the veterans smiling ear to ear at her mom standing with her hand over her heart.
After the ceremony, we loaded the buses to head off to our next stop which was the Air Force Memorial but before we left a bus captain jumped on and asked for Jack, we both got up out of our seats and Jack moved to the front of the bus for a surprise. He was met by a service member who played Taps during the ceremony, who also happened to be the son of Jack’s neighbors back in Fond du Lac. He jumped on board, shook Jack’s hand and simply wanted to say hi and say he’ll see him at Christmas. It was that simple but that simple act had Jack in tears while he sat back down.
Air Force Memorial
Our final stop before flying back to Appleton was dinner at the Air Force Memorial. I think I can speak for the over 100 people on the mission, by 5:00 p.m. we were tired but we knew we had one more stretch of the journey to finish. We sat outside eating, looking at the 270-foot spires above of us, and just beyond that, a perfect view of the Pentagon and Washington D.C.
The Journey Home – Mail Call
After visiting the Air Force Memorial we made our way back to Reagan National Airport, en route to Appleton for the homecoming these 97 veterans deserved from day one. About half an hour into the flight was yet another thing I will never forget – Mail Call. Each of the veterans received a packet full of letters from family, friends and others in their lives saying thank you for their service. I sat and opened some letters for Jack and he insisted on telling me who each of the people were that wrote them, I was about three letters in when I started to tear up, noticing Jack was also tearing up reading through them. I listened to Jack as he put each letter back in my hand, telling me who each person is to him – whether it was his grandkids, friends he and his wife travel with, or neighbors. The rest of the flight was a quiet one, many ready to get home and some not knowing what was awaiting them back at the airport.
Once we landed and got off the plane, we waited in Gate 7 behind a group of black curtains, we lined up and waited until the very last veteran got off the plane. After cheers of ‘welcome home’ rang out in the waiting area, the curtains were pulled back and a sea of thousands of people appeared, each and every one of them here to welcome 97 veterans home – a welcome home they all deserve.
I walked alongside Jack as people cheered, held signs and clapped welcoming them home after a day’s journey to Washington D.C. No words can truly describe the scene and the emotion of that long walk through the airport – you simply have to be there.
I had the pleasure of meeting Jack’s family and friends before leaving for the night, I met his wife briefly and there was not a dry eye in the bunch – including myself. Before leaving I gave Jack a hug, not saying much but I don’t think we needed to, both knowing the day was rewarding in several ways.
If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would have the opportunity to spend 15 hours with U.S. Veterans, I would think you’re crazy. It was the most emotional, humbling and amazing experience of my life and something that makes me emotional even a few days after. I met several amazing Vietnam Vets, some who told their stories and some who didn’t. I also had the pleasure to spend 15 hours with Jack who had to get used to me having him go first through the doors, to board the bus and plane and me always saying “this is your day”, but you better believe he asked me a few times if I was having a nice time.
The Old Glory Honor Flight has been on 55 missions that have changed the lives of veterans across Wisconsin – and I can argue changed the lives of the guardians as well. They are always looking for more veterans and guardians to go on flights, you can learn more information on their website or on their social media platforms. Take a moment to check out volunteer opportunities and ways you can help because as the saying goes “It’s Never Too Late To Say Thank You.”