Over the weekend, the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight of Milwaukee, mission #67, took 150 veterans on a trip of a lifetime to Washington, D.C, to honor their past, seek closure, and welcome them back home, where for some, it was the first time being welcomed back.
118 Vietnam veterans, 34 Korean Veterans, and 5 World War II veterans were on hand for the memorable trip, including the 9,000th veteran to pass through the gates since it all began in 2008.
“Honor flight was developed as a way to get our oldest veterans to their memorial with the support they need. Our vets, who saw combat, rough combat, as they retire, those memories seem to come back. The last third of their lives is a great time to really put that to rest, to revisit those memories in a positive way, and to really have some closure on that part of their lives.” Karyn Roelke, President of Stars and Stripes on what their mission is.
I was lucky enough to tag along with the incredible crew and let me tell you, it was a life-changing experience for me.
The day started early, with the first roll call of the day beginning at 5 am at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport. During my first few steps into the airport, I could feel the excitement and eagerness of many deserving veterans and family members who were preparing to embark on a highly anticipated trip as each minute passed.
“Means everything. I’m so excited. Just to be amongst the other guys is just fantastic.” Air Force veteran Jerry Ward, who served from 1969-1973.
After all the heroes were checked in, it was time to grab a coffee and get ready for an action-packed day. The send-off was unique, which included the National Anthem sung right at the gate.
The flight to D.C. was extraordinary. There was a moment when I put my phone down, stopped scrolling through social media, and took a second to take in the ambient noise of total strangers becoming friends in mere minutes. Sharing stories, laughs, and bonding over one common theme – serving the country they adore.
At roughly 9:30 am, Alpha flight from Milwaukee landed in Washington with the warmest welcome you only see in movies. Hundreds of people filled Dulles Airport, many with signs, flags, and a smile, welcoming each veteran in the only way a veteran should be welcomed.
It was a path of hundreds of people, shaking the hands, holding signs, and giving the warmest welcome I have ever been apart of. Not a dry eye in the airport. Random travelers stopping with the luggage, watching from afar, and honoring many who have come before them.
The first stop on the trip was a short bus ride down to Iwo Jima and the Marine Corps memorial, which was breathtaking. Walking around the monument, seeing the Marine vets and strangers minutes ago, embracing each other with hugs, handshakes, and memories was extraordinary. They took pictures around the gorgeous memorial, each with a different yet similar story, all bonding in just a matter of minutes – it was truly spectacular.
Marine Corps Memorial – Bravo flight. Honoring one of our wonderful Marine vets & 3 active duty marines. Thank you for your service. #sshf67 #SemperFi pic.twitter.com/TEI5lc8dRr— Stars and Stripes Honor Flight (@SSHonorFlight) April 22, 2023
The next stop of the day was Arlington National Cemetery. I recall this moment vividly, as each bus, four total, carried roughly 40 people, was filled with laughter and some small talk as it weaved in and out of traffic through a crowded Washington Saturday morning. All that chatter, all that laughter, any noise at all, stopped. It was silent—complete silence as the bus made its way through the road through Arlington. Tears filled my eyes and many others as we drove past the white headstones, each with a name, a rank, and a memory. It was a humbling moment that, regardless of service or not, will bring you to your core of gratitude and sadness.
Humbling day on a @SSHonorFlight #America pic.twitter.com/eDgavn2dNx— John Mercure (@JohnMercure) April 22, 2023
The day from there went on to the Vietnam Wall, the Korean War memorial, and the World War II memorial, to name just a few. Despite a quick rainstorm while visiting the memorials, the crew at Stars and Stripes made it a day, I , and so many others will never forge for as long as they live.
Each stop was filled with memories, good and bad, but more importantly, closure for so many, who have been waiting decades for that single moment. When the bus would come to a halt, each monument was a new sight, with new stories and more bonds, brought on by many experiences, some similar, some different, but all sharing one common thing – love for thy country.
After many stops, stories and monuments, the day would come to a quick close, as the buses filled up, and as the veterans headed to the airport to board the plane in anticipation of coming home after an emotional day, not knowing the surprises they would encounter before their special day would come to a conclusion.
Everyone would board the plane in a quick, organized fashion, most still sharing stories of the day, some exchanging photos, and some a little sad about the day and the journey that was ending.
But, little did they know, a few fun surprises were still on the schedule for them.
About 20 minutes into the flight back home to the Good Land, WTMJ’s John Mercure and I grabbed a few suitcases filled with mail, and it was time to hand out packages, where for some, it was the first time they heard their name called aloud for “mail call.”
The look on their faces is something I will never forget. A mix of confusion, happiness, and relief.
Some opening their mail right away, some holding on to it, starring at it, reliving memories and moments only they know of.
The surprises, as great as it was for mail call, didn’t stop there. There was more.
Upon arrival into Milwaukee, each veteran was welcomed home by loud, beautiful notes of bagpipes, a marching band giving an upbeat vibe, and thousands, yes – thousands of cheering family and friends. A night you have to experience to truly understand. The words here will never do it the proper justice it deserves.
Bravo homecoming candid shots. Thank you everyone who came out to welcome home our heroes!! 🎉🇺🇸 #sshf67 pic.twitter.com/rJAEcuOpgG— Stars and Stripes Honor Flight (@SSHonorFlight) April 23, 2023
Complete strangers hugging each veteran, thanking them for their service, and making sure each of them received a welcome home that required tissue in the hand to get by, as each welcome brought on more tears for everyone in attendance.
After each veteran made it through their salutes from past flyers, and current military service members, as their loving family and friends were anxiously waiting for them. Signs everywhere. Cheers loud, and smiles a mile wide. Little kids in the audience, shaking hands with the vets, thanking them individually for the freedoms they enjoy today.
Can you imagine being a #Vietnam vet who was never welcomed home…until your Stars and Stripes Honor Flight day, when you were cheered & welcomed home by thousands? Thank you Milwaukee & @MitchellAirport! So emotional and beautiful. #Everydayisabonus pic.twitter.com/Ygrw3RdW3p— Stars and Stripes Honor Flight (@SSHonorFlight) April 23, 2023
It was such a surreal moment for each veteran, and for some, it was the first welcome home they ever received following their heroic service.
I think, at the end of the day, regardless of what side you fall on – there is a lot wrong with and in Washington, but the Honor Flight, and the moments they help create there are one thing they got right. It’s special.
If you ever have thought about going, or know a vet who wants to go, please find the link below, and gather all the info you need.
Stars and Stripes Honor Flight Donation & Info here.