81 veterans take an emotional journey on Midwest Honor Flight: Mission 9

Updated: May. 25, 2022 at 10:00 PM CDT
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WASHINGTON, D.C. (KTIV) - It was the trip of a lifetime for 81 U.S. veterans earlier this month. They were flown to Washington, D.C. to see the monuments and memorials that honor their service and sacrifice on Midwest Honor Flight: Mission 9. It was an 18-hour day that involved flying from the Sioux Falls airport to the nation’s capital and back. These men served during Vietnam, Korea and World War II. They come from northwest Iowa, southwest Minnesota and all over South Dakota.

After two-and-a-half hours in the air, they received a heroes’ welcome at Reagan National Airport in D.C. Applause from travelers waiting for their flights, thank yous and high-fives from people they don’t know. It was the kind of welcome many of these men did not get when they returned from duty.

The veterans were revered at every stop along the way.

“Thank you for your service,” a man said as he shook hands with one of the veterans who was in a wheelchair being pushed toward the World War II Memorial on the National Mall.

“You bet,” replied the veteran.

“Good to have you guys here!” said a woman who was helping hold a banner that read, “Welcome Honor Flight.”

“They literally are like celebrities today,” said Aaron Van Beek, the CEO and founder of the Midwest Honor Flight. “I think that that’s the best that we can show as the American people from all walks of life from all over the country, when Honor Flights come in everybody recognizes what that name is and they understand that these veterans are here to be honored and what they did for our country and those around the globe is certainly something that they need to be honored for.”

“It’s an honor that they do it. It really means something,” said David Harn, a Navy veteran from Sheldon, Iowa.

It’s a feeling shared by all of the veterans on the trip.

“They’ve treated us so well,” said Ernest Olson, an Army veteran from Sioux City.

“This is just nuts how great this whole experience is” said Paul Thompson, a Navy veteran from Baltic, South Dakota.

“I never would have dreamed this would ever happen,” said Bill Hawkins, an Army veteran from Colton, South Dakota. “I feel like my whole heart’s been lifted. I really feel good.”

They squeeze a lot into one day: Arlington National Cemetery, for the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Air Force Memorial on a hill above the Pentagon, and the U.S. Marines Memorial, featuring a giant statue of the iconic flag-raising by U.S. Marines at Iwo Jima. Next stop, the World War II Memorial. There are two veterans of World War 2 on this trip, including 102-year-old John Solheim of Redfield, South Dakota.

“Oh, it’s historic,” he said. “I enjoy history and history is very interesting to me. Because a lot of people don’t, they look at it and then they forget it, you see?”

There’s also a stop at the U.S. Navy Memorial, where a group photo is taken outside with the National Archives across Pennsylvania Avenue serving as the backdrop. Here, veterans also see the statue of John Douangdara, the Navy Seal from South Sioux City killed in action in Afghanistan in 2011.

The most somber stop of the day for many on this trip: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. So many of these men served during Vietnam. They all knew someone whose name is on The Wall.

Harlan Herbst, an Air Force veteran from Le Mars points to a name. “That would be Warren Brown,” he said. “He was one of our pilots that got shot down and the only one we lost all year over in Vietnam.”

It’s an emotional journey that many of these veterans would never have the opportunity to experience if not for the Midwest Honor Flight. A trip that includes a few tears.

Army Veteran Mario Mercado of Brandon, South Dakota found the name of a buddy who didn’t come home from Vietnam.

“It’s good. It’s sad. It brings back a lot of memories,” he said.

The trip also brings a little healing.

“I think it’s just absolutely awesome. Them guys are terrific!” said James Vos, an Army veteran from Sioux Center, Iowa, who got a pencil rubbing of the name of a soldier he served with in Vietnam. “This has been a very, very emotional day. Wonderful day,” he said.

“It’s amazing and we’re so thankful that they do that for us,” said Bill Kingma, an Air Force veteran from Hawarden, Iowa.

“A lot of people come up to you all the time and want to shake your hand and all this stuff,” said Army veteran John Merchant of Sioux City

“I am really impressed with it because it really shows that they care,” added Roman Langhoff, an Air Force veteran from Sioux City.

“It’s heart-warming. It brings back a lot of memories. It shows you a lot of people care,” said Herbst, the Air Force veteran from Le Mars who served in Vietnam.

There’s also plenty of camaraderie, smiles and laughter.

“This is like a welcome home. I mean, it really is,” said Thomas Nabity, a Navy veteran from Hawarden, Iowa. “I love America, I love all this stuff, I love that veterans are honored here,”

“It’s a piece of mind. It’s emotional. It’s great to be with other veterans,” added Joseph Reed, a Marines veteran from Spearfish, South Dakota. “We’ve all had different experiences and we’ve all had the same goal.”

John Damrau, an Army veteran from Sioux City added, “We’re getting to revisit the people that stood for us at one time and we get to stand for those that can’t stand themselves.”

There’s more love for the men at the end of the day. Another hero’s welcome when they arrive back in Sioux Falls, both at the airport, where bagpipes and drums play and members of the Patriot Honor Guard stand holding flags and welcome them home.

One more surprise awaits as the men are bussed right into the Sioux Falls Arena, where hundreds of family members, friends and well-wishers greet them with applause, signs and waving flags. For these 81 men, it’s a great end to a day that these men who served their country will never forget.

The Midwest Honor Flight is one of several chapters of Honor Flights across the country. The trips are free of charge for veterans. They’re funded through donations and fundraisers. This mission was sponsored by the Sioux City Musketeers, who donated more than 85-thousand dollars that was raised in a jersey auction.

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