Veterans Take Honor Flight From Twin Cities To D.C.

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Aging veterans from the Twin Cities made a special trip to our nation’s capital to see war memorials built in their honor. The one day journey to Washington, D.C., through Honor Flight is offered at no cost to the veterans.

The non-profit formed after the World War II memorial was built in 2004 to make sure surviving veterans had a chance to get there. It is a small way to say thank you to the Greatest Generation for their service and sacrifice.

WCCO’s Jennifer Mayerle and photojournalist Dave Porter traveled with Honor Flight Twin Cities and local veterans.

It’s a journey back many of these war veterans never envisioned taking.

“I haven’t been to D.C. in 65 years, so I’m really thrilled,” Korean War veteran Russell Leighton said.

It’s a flight full of quiet heroes who served our country in World War II or in the Korean War.

“We’re getting fewer men,” World War II veteran George Fett said.

Each seat secured for someone who should feel the depth of our nation’s gratitude.

Veterans aboard the Honor Flight receive notes from students, strangers and family during Mail Call.

Korean War veteran Leon Simon received a letter from his daughter, thankful her dad made it home.

“That’s the first letter I ever got from her,” Simon said.

“Thank you for your service in the World War,” Simon read. “This is a great country. I think we’ve got a wonderful generation coming up.”

But it’s this generation, the Greatest Generation, that earned all the fanfare and appreciation bestowed upon them.  People greeted the veterans at the airport, shaking hands and offering thanks.

Once in Washington, D.C., the buses were boarded to take the veterans to memorials to reflect on service and sacrifice. For many it’s the only way they would get here, and it comes at no cost to them.

The Marine Corps war memorial depicting the iconic flag rising at Iwo Jima was especially moving for Charles Elias.

“I’m just glad I could get here to see it because I watched it go up on binoculars,” Elias said.

The words etched in granite drew him in.

“I think of the young kids that never made it. That’s the part that breaks me up,” Elias said.

The World War II Memorial, dedicated in 2004, honors the 16 million who served in support of the United States.

“At first they didn’t want to take me, I was too small but I begged them that I want to go,” said Rudolph Aquilar.

His memories of the Battle of the Bulge are vivid.

“You see some of your friends just fall and die and you keep on going,” Aquilar said.

Each veteran is accompanied by a guardian during their “Tour of Honor.” World War II veteran Simon Risk shared the experience with his son.

“It brought back a lot of good memories, and a lot of bad memories. I’m very happy to be here and I’ll remember it until I die,” Risk said.

On the memorial, 4,028 stars represent 100 military deaths, the price more than 400,000 Americans paid to win the war.

Last year as most of the World War II veterans made their way off the waiting list, Honor Flight Twin Cities added Korean War veterans to the trip.

“I’m 84 years old. I wouldn’t get here on my own,” Korean War veteran Vernon Peterson said.

He served alongside his twin and older brother.

“This portrayal of the troops is so realistic. I froze both legs all the way up to my knees,” Peterson said.

Harry Burke was injured in the Chosin Reservoir, a decisive battle during the Korean War.

“I’m thankful to be here, thankful to be alive and talking. My sacrifice was just minimal in comparison to most of my friends,” Burke said.

This is a place to acknowledge those whose commitment and achievement allowed an entire nation to live freely. It’s felt intensely at Arlington National Cemetery, where heroes find their final resting place in hallowed ground.

Atop a hill the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s dedicated to service members who died without their remains being identified.

Veterans watch the changing of the guard, a sacred and meticulous ritual conducted each hour.

A ceremony that causes one to pause as each step instills pride.

And, at the end of the day, the sacrifice was recognized and revered by friends and family who were there to greet the veterans at the airport.

“Very heart fulfilling,” Burke said.

The next Twin Cities Honor Flight is in the spring. There is a waiting list.

To learn more about the non-profit, how you can become a Guardian, and ways to support Honor Flight’s mission, click here.

Here is a slideshow of the October trip.

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