MADISON — Badger Honor Flight wrapped up its 2017 flight season on Saturday night at the Dane County Regional Airport, where a crowd of more than 4,000 was on hand to celebrate the organization’s 29th flight and to greet veterans returning home from a day in Washington, D.C.
A hub in the national Honor Flight Network, Badger Honor Flight primarily serves veterans in Columbia, Dane, Grant, Green, Iowa, Jefferson, Lafayette, Richland, Rock, Sauk and parts of Dodge counties. The nonprofit organization takes area veterans to see memorials in the nation’s capital at no cost to them.
Badger Honor Flight Event Coordinator Diane Rabehl of Beaver Dam said 89 veterans and 77 guardians left Madison Saturday morning. The passengers included four veterans of World War II, 18 of Korea and 67 of Vietnam. The veterans toured various sites including Arlington National Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Iwo Jima, World War II, Korean, Vietnam and Air Force monuments.
Kelly McMillan, who is also a volunteer event coordinator from Beaver Dam, said the veterans arrive at the airport around 4 a.m. and return at 9:15 p.m. the same day.
“It’s a long day for them, but one they will never forget,” McMillan said. “The trip honors those who served for us.”
McMillan said since the first Badger Honor Flight departed for Washington 7½ years ago, 2,500 veterans have traveled to see their monuments through the program.
Veterans are selected for flights on a first-come, first-served basis. World War II veterans are given priority, followed by Korean War veterans. Exceptions are made for terminally ill veterans from any conflict. There are four flights each year.
“The homecoming ceremony is electric,” Rabehl said. “Ladies Must Swing plays big band music and patriotic tunes, Bucky Badger gets the crowd fired up, there is an honor guard and Uncle Sam — they are all ready to welcome our vets back.”
Bill Linke is the commander of American Legion Post 521 in Fox Lake. He was seated with his wife, Dawn, in the Honor Flight alumni area at the airport. The alumni are the first people the returning veterans see when they come down the escalator or elevator when they return to Madison.
Linke, a Vietnam veteran, went on the Honor Flight in September. He said the trip is well-organized and seeing Washington, D.C., with his fellow veterans is what meant the most to him.
Mail call is mentioned as a favorite part of many veterans who make the trip, according to McMillan. Every veteran receives mail on the flight back.
“My daughter and my wife coordinated with a day care and contacted some of my friends I was in the military with from other states,” Linke said. “I received letters telling me they’re glad I got the opportunity to go on the Honor Flight and thanked me for serving.”
Roger DeYoung was another one of the 44 Dodge County veterans that flew on the Sept. 16 Badger Honor Flight. He took a bus that was sponsored from Beaver Dam to the airport Saturday to welcome back his fellow veterans. Although he didn’t personally know anyone on Saturday’s flight, he felt it was important to be at the homecoming.
“Not all servicemen we welcomed home when their conflict ended years ago,” he said. “They treated us really well when we got home from the Honor Flight.”
DeYoung said he liked the World War II memorial the best and he also greatly enjoyed mail call. His guardian was from Virginia and he has been corresponding with her since the trip.
Cheryl Feucht of Beaver Dam also rode the bus to the airport. The proud military mom has been attending the welcome-home celebrations of the Badger Honor Flight for the past five years and plans to keep attending as long as she can.
“Seeing the smiles on the veterans’ faces when they first see the crowd is addicting,” she said.
Badger Honor Flight will resume trips in the spring. There are more than 900 veterans currently on the waiting list, including three from World War II.