The inaugural Greater Peoria Honor Flight landed at Peoria International Airport last night to a rock-star-like reception. Around 2,500 patriotic folks, the Celtic Cross Bagpipers, the Elite Drum Corps and groups of cheerleaders welcomed back our U.S. military heroes. Hundreds more were unable to squeeze in the new terminal and waited outdoors to say, "Thanks" to the vets. I walked with the veterans and their guardians through the packed crowd, feeling unworthy among those who put their life on the line for our country, but thanking all those who came out for the welcome back. I overheard vets say things like, "This is amazing!" and "I never expected anything like this!"
It's difficult even for me, a guy who makes his living with words, to describe the long, but rewarding day, but remarkable, awesome, moving, somber, joyous, proud and lucky come to mind.
For those just hearing about this program, the Honor Flight Network debuted in Ohio in 2005, flying our U.S. war veterans, mostly from World War II, to Washington, D.C., to see their war memorial and others in our nation's Capital. This was the Peoria area's first-ever veterans' flight. Around 80 vets from 24 different Central Illinois towns were the first to go from PIA. Approximately 35 participated in WWII, about 35 more in the Korean War, while around seven were Vietnam vets and a few served in the Gulf War. I believe there were three women veterans.
This one-of-a-kind program is totally free to the veterans, who are accompanied by a guardian, who donates $500.00. The rest of the flight, travel arrangements and meals are covered by donations. This flight cost approximately $80,000, so there will be much more fund-raising if Peoria is to sustain this perpetually. I know there'll be no shortage of veterans wanting to experience this "swansong" as Nick Anton - who served in the Air Force in WWII AND Korea - called it.
From the start of the day at PIA, around 5 am for most of us (the organizers were there much earlier), it was clear the vets were going to get treated above and beyond. After checking in and taking a picture with their guardians, we were all allowed to skirt security and get to our gate easily. With so many of the vets at advanced ages - about two-thirds were at or over 80 years - not having to take shoes and belts off was greatly appreciated. Food, snacks and drinks were available for them from the start of the day 'til the finish.
The Honor Flight Network in Washington, also an all-volunteer group, made sure our arrival was unique. Reagan Airport firetrucks saluted our plane with water cannons shooting arching lines of water overhead, like knights with swords crossing above us. Everyone in the travelling party was greeting by applause when walking through the gate. Applause and "thank you's" would be common throughout the day.
"World War II has been over for, what, 68 years?" said Anton, "and there are kids coming up to me in the airport saying, 'Thank you for your service.' It's amazing." Elementary school kids were waiting with banners, smiles and applause at our first stop, the World War II Memorial. A high school band on its field trip played in the background. Ironically, the band was from Whitehouse, Texas. Local politicians Ray LaHood, Cheri Bustos and Bob Michaels greeted and spoke to the vets, while Aaron Schock joined them at the next stop.
We hopped on the air conditioned bus where our volunteer tour guide Theresa Werner filled us in on what landmarks we were passing and gave info on the upcoming stops. The Vietnam, Lincoln and Korean War memorials are all clustered fairly close together. I'd seen the Lincoln before, so WEEK/WHOI's Josh Simon and I focused on the other two. The Korean War Memorial was stunning. About 20 U.S. military members are shown in larger-than-life statue form, walking in a triangular formation out of a forrest.
From there, it was off to the "Iwo Jima" (Marines) Memorial and the newish Air Force Memorial. The latter features three arching jet "contrails" splitting off high overhead. Think the St. Louis Arch meets the classic Thunderbirds formation in which three jets soar tightly together vertically before breaking away.
Our final stop was at the Arlington National Cemetery, where we watched the changing of the guard. A JAG officer on our bus and another one on the site loaded us up with info on "The Old Guard," the highly competitive ceremonial Army unit that guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 24-7, 365 days a year, rain, snow or shine. That includes a recent brush watching over it while Hurricane Sandy raged through the East coast.
After watching the guard change, I came upon three of our vets in wheelchairs telling war stories to a group of junior high kids on a class trip. The teenagers were semi-interested when the cheery moderator/teacher asked one of the vets about his WWII experience. He said he'd been in the Air Force. She asked how many missions? He said three. She said, "Oh, you must've gotten in at the tail end of the war." He said, "No. Got shot down on that mission." That hit home, got real, for the ADHD group, which became quiet immediately.
Back at the Reagan Airport, some levity was added by the Big Band music playing in the terminal overhead. Our bus tour guide Theresa danced with some of the vets, while her male friend danced with 89-year-old WWII nurse Nora Leman, a woman whose smile still lights up a room. As we boarded the Sun Country Airline plane for the return flight, the veterans were a happy, tired group that thought the day and itinerary were done.
With about an hour left in the flight, one of the committee members and organizers Lesley Matuszak commandeered the plane's PA microphone and started calling a "Soldier's Mail Call." She called roll and each vet was given a mail bag full of letters written to them by family and friends. One of the vets on my row, 87-year-old Raymond Huette wiped away a tear and said, "In my life, I never expected anything like this."
At one point, one of the bags came up missing for a vet. I commented that this was real and authentic, like real life, military mail going missing. A vet a row up quipped, "yeah, a little too real."
But that wasn't the end of the emotional day. I knew - we'd publicized it on GLO - that we were having a somewhat "surprise" welcome back celebration for the vets. I expected 200-300. When we disembarked from the plane, several dozen active duty military members in uniform were there to greet their predecessors, troops greeting troops. That was just a warm up for the incredible outpouring of support from the public that followed.
Many people have commented to me that they wanted to come to the airport for the homecoming or that they knew a family member who wanted to get on the Honor Flight. Well, you're in luck. We want to make this a perpetual Peoria program. I know there are enough vets who'd enjoy this greatly. But the program survives on donations and will need continual monetary support, in addition to the legion of volunteers that made this first flight turn out so well in such a short few month's turnaround time.
The next fundraising event is Saturday starting at 3 pm at Veterans Pub and Pizza on Adams Street in Peoria. In Morton Monday night at the Bertha Frank Performing Arts Center, the documentary "Honor Flight: One Last Mission" will be shown at 7 pm. If you'd like to make a donation or know a vet who'd like to fill out the online application, click on http://www.greaterpeoriahonorflight.org/
Every one of the former soldiers has a story. Check back in the next few days for more of them.