WASHINGTON — “What an honor,” Vern Neumann, a Vietnam era veteran from Spring Green, exclaimed while taking in the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. “What an experience.”
It was a thought echoed by every veteran, every guardian, and every member of the support staff on the May 18 Badger Honor Flight as they toured the monuments dedicated to veterans throughout the nation’s capital.
Eighty-six veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam took the 36th Badger Honor Flight May 18 from Madison to Washington, including 14 veterans from the Sauk Prairie area.
The veterans toured Arlington National Cemetery, the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, the United States Air Force Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the National World War II Memorial, the United States Marine Corps War Memorial, and the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial.
A guardian who underwent specific training to support the veterans, often a friend or family member, accompanied each veteran. Numerous support staff also traveled with the veterans or met them in Washington, including medical personnel, volunteers who assisted with wheelchairs and passing out snacks and water, photographers, organizers, guides, and more.
The day began in Madison at Dane County Regional Airport, with veterans and their guardians checking in and receiving shirts, hats, and jackets. Once everyone arrived, the group took in the opening ceremony that included the Sauk Prairie Lachmund Cramer VFW Post 7694 acting as color guard and presenting a check for a future honor flight.
The Honor Flight was not without its challenges.
The chartered plane arrived in Madison late, putting in doubt the packed itinerary. Departing about an hour late, the veterans arrived in Arlington. Virginia, at Reagan National Airport about half an hour behind schedule.
They loaded onto five buses, where, escorted by the United States Park Police, they weaved in and out of the gridlocked traffic toward Washington.
First on the itinerary was a stop at Arlington National Cemetery to view the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The ceremony occurs every half hour during the summer in front of the tomb dedicated to unidentified United States service members.
As the veterans unloaded from the buses in front of the cemetery, students from an Ohio school lined up to greet the veterans and thank them for their service to the country.
“Back in the ’70s, if you were in uniform, you weren’t thanked for your service. You couldn’t walk through without someone calling out something like ‘babykiller,’” said Waunakee resident Pete Matiash, a United States Army medic who served from 1971 to 1974 in Vietnam. “Times have changed … people have changed.”
Sharon May of Rockford, an Air Force veteran who served from 1965-1971 during the Vietnam era and only female veteran on the trip, departed from the group with her daughter, guardian Stephanie May, to take in the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. May enlisted in the Air Force immediately after high school, and was one of the first 12 women assigned to serve as an aircraft control and warming operator.
Although the Honor Flight group visited three memorials dedicated to service members like May, the Women’s, Air Force, and Vietnam memorials, the Women’s Memorial “… means the most to me. The Women’s Memorial was marvelous,” she said. “It’s something I’ve been looking forward to since I found out I was going on the trip.”
Departing Arlington, the veterans then made their way to the United States Air Force Memorial. A newer memorial, the Air Force Memorial rises 270 feet in the air and stands directly in the flight path of the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 that was deliberately crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, killing 64 people on board the plane and 125 inside the Pentagon.
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“All the memorials, by God it’s awesome,” said Korean War veteran and Sauk City resident Ralph Slotty, who served from 1958 to 1966, while visiting the United States Air Force Memorial. “It’s an amazing operation, and shows that when you give something karma comes back.”
Slotty was accompanied on the Honor Flight by his son, guardian Dan Slotty, who helped raise funds for the Honor Flight by participating in beanbag tournaments throughout Wisconsin and donating all of his winnings to the Badger Honor Flight. The Sauk County area has raised more than $100,000 for the Honor Flight, enough to sponsor an entire flight.
“It’s funny that we’re here, because for a long time my dad said ‘I can’t do this, it’s too hard, it’s not for me,’” Dan Slotty said. “But then he heard from his friends how much the trip meant to them, how much visiting the memorials meant to them, and now it’s amazing that we’re able to be here.”
After lunch at the Air Force Memorial, provided at cost by Ace Dar, the owner of a group of Washington-area Arby’s who has provided more than 200,000 meals to Honor Flights, the group departed for the longest stop of the day at the National Mall to visit the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
Of the 86 veterans on the flight, 82 served during the Vietnam War.
With more than 58,000 names of service members who died during the Vietnam War, many of the veterans knew someone who has their name inscribed on the wall at the Vietnam Memorial. Many of the veterans expressed gratitude that views of the Vietnam War have matured over time, with civilians evolving to separate the politics of the war from the support of service members, many of whom were drafted into service.
Neumann, the Spring Green veteran who served during Vietnam, called the Vietnam Memorial the “highlight of the trip.”
“You know, when us Vietnam vets came home, we were almost spit on,” Neumann said. “My cousin is on that wall, it’s good that people have changed.”
Neumann also made sure to express his gratitude to the Honor Flight for a “really thoughtful and generous operation,” without which many of the veterans would never have seen the memorials dedicated in their honor.
On the other side of the National Mall, the veterans, including the lone World War II veteran on the flight, Edwin Schroeder, took in the World War II Memorial. Schroeder was accompanied on the trip by his grandson, Andrew Schroeder. Edwin Schroeder, who also called the flight a “great honor,” spent the majority of the time at the memorial by the Wisconsin pillar, leaving his wheelchair to get his picture taken in front of the pillar with his grandson.
After leaving the World War II Memorial, the veterans stopped at the Marine Corps Memorial, a sculpture dedicated to Marines that depicts the iconic photograph of Marines raising the American Flag at the battle of Iwo Jima. With the assistance of the police escort, the group made up enough time to also visit the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial.
With the visits to the memorials concluded, the veterans boarded the plane back to Madison, where they opened letters from friends, family, supporters, and strangers thanking them for their sacrifices and service.
James Foulker, a Vietnam veteran and Lodi resident who served from 1971 to 1973, said the trip “was fantastic. There was so much to see, I could come back a million times.”
Arriving in Madison, the group was welcomed back by a crowd of thousands, who celebrated the veterans with cheering, salutes, music, and an honor guard.