Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Sixty years later, we remember what they did

by John Halverson

October 20, 2011

Halverson
I glanced out the window of our bus. There was a lone soldier standing as stiff as a stick, saluting. He couldn't have been much past 20.

That lone soldier was standing outside one of two buses full of World War II veterans at the D.C. airport. I was a Chaper One for one of those veterans on something called Honor Flight. Honor Flight is an organization which honors veterans by sending them to Washington to see the patriotic sites. The World War II memorial. The Iwo Jima statue. The guards changing at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

But it's more than a sightseeing trip. It was a whirlwind journey meant to honor the last of the World War II veterans, to say thanks. For many of them it was the first time they saw the memorial built in their name. For too many it will be the last time.

We left Milwaukee early Saturday morning and returned that night. Everyone is a volunteer and the veterans pay nothing. Everything is paid for by the Honor Flight organization, which is funded by donations. Each of the 200 veterans had a chaperone, so there were more than 400 of us all together.

The organizers did an amazing job. We went through security at the airport in record time. A police escort allowed us to circumvent most of the D.C. traffic. An admiral was even contacted when it was learned that the fountain at the World War II memorial was turned off for maintenance; "If anyone can find water, it's the Navy," the admiral was told, and the fountain was on by the time we arrived.

Honor Flight is quite a tribute, but a bitter sweet one. That's because 900 World War II veterans die every day. The youngest World War II veteran is 85. The oldest past 100. Some of our veterans had wheelchairs or canes, but a surprising number didn't need any help to get around. The fact that they kept pace with the much younger chaperones in the 80 degree D.C. weather was a tribute to their toughness — one of many traits honed in the battlefields in Europe and on islands in the South Pacific.

The World War II monument built in their name wasn't even finished until 60 years after the war. It came long after the monuments for the Vietnam and Korean wars. Ironically, it was a testament to members of the so-called Greatest Generation, who were reluctant to draw attention to themselves.

Today, when it seems everyone is looking out for number one, most of these veterans thought what they did was simply their duty. Sure, World War II was a much less controversial war than the ones that followed. It was much clearer that it was a just war and who the bad guys were. Still, that doesn't take away from a generation that considered duty part of a well-lived life. The veterans on the trip were clearly touched by the attention they received. Some, no doubt, told war stories especially among their peers. But I never saw one bragging or acting as though they were anything special. Humbleness and duty — two traits most of us could learn more about.

There were crowds awaiting the veterans at both the DC and Milwaukee airports. There were bands and dignitaries and well-wishers, families and volunteers. The crowd at the Milwaukee airport numbered in the thousands. Greeting us as we got off the plane was a row of representatives from today's armed forces, standing at attention and saluting — as still and respectful as the lone solider I had seen in D.C.

As I look back, I can't forget the image of the lone soldier at the D.C. airport. He didn't appear to be part of an organized welcoming party. He was just one young man with an uncertain future ahead of him, standing at attention as many of those on the bus had stood at attention six decades earlier — straight and firm and, by all appearances, fearless.

I can only hope we don't wait as long to honor him and the rest of today's warriors.

The veterans on the bus, now nearing the end of their lives, shouldn't have had to wait so long, either.

P.S. If you're interested in Honor Flight, want to contribute, volunteer or just learn more, check out starsandstripeshonorflight.org.

Halverson is the general manager of the Regional News.