A flight for the ages
Seventy-one years ago, our country plunged into war when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. This “day which will live in infamy” also created the “Greatest Generation” that included millions of Americans, including my father.
Just a teenager when World War II began, Dad followed many of his friends into service. He trained as a Navy pilot and flew bombing missions in the Philippines. Dad returned home to the family farm in South Dakota, going into business with his brother and eventually to college and seminary on the G.I. Bill.
Growing up, Dad didn’t tell us kids many war stories, a humbleness common among his generation. Later in life, he’d put stories on paper, so we could learn from his experience, and preserve them for our kids.
According to some accounts, this “Greatest Generation” loses 900 vets a day. It’s why programs like Honor Flight are so important. They provide our heroes a chance to revisit stories and share them with generations who have followed. And it gives the communities where these vets live one more opportunity to say thanks for their service so many years ago.
In October, I was fortunate to accompany my Dad, now 89, on the Badger Honor Flight, as his guardian. On a crisp, blue-sky day, we flew with nearly 80 vets from Madison, Wis., to our nation’s capital. Some of the most poignant moments of this jam-packed journey occurred between these heroes and the complete strangers they met along the way.
There were the local boy scouts, who held doors and pushed wheelchairs as veterans arrived at the Dane County Regional Airport – all before sunrise.
There were firefighters – heroes themselves – who greeted us at both airports with handshakes, smiles and a runway water-cannon salute.
There were volunteers – hundreds of them it seemed – who pulled off an epic task of managing dozens of octogenarians and their guardians, from first contact through flight day. They make Honor Flight what it is today – a successful, well-respected program.
And then there was the young father and his daughter, who took time to hold up a homemade sign and extend a hand of thanks, as we made our way through Reagan National Airport toward our tour buses.
The gesture brought us to tears.
Clad in my blue guardian jacket and Dad in his red hero jacket, we toured the World War II, Korean and Vietnam War memorials, with stops at the Lincoln, Marine Corps and Air Force memorials. We watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It all happened so fast, but every stop had special meaning – for veterans and guardians.
The return home was equally emotional. It included an in-flight “mail call,” with a special delivery of cards and letters from friends, family and strangers. Dad was delighted, and I was humbled by the opportunity to be by his side the entire day.
It hasn’t all sunk in – the importance and meaningfulness of the entire day. Someday it will.
In the meantime, I share my thanks to all veterans – past and present – for their service. Showing our appreciation is the least we can do, especially for the “Greatest Generation,” whose numbers are dwindling. Our time with these heroes is limited, so enjoy and appreciate every moment. I know I will.
Editor's note: From Nov. 11 through Dec. 10, join American Family Insurance as we devote 30 Days of Thanks to the everyday heroes in our lives. Who would be on your 30 Days of Thanks list? Visit our Facebook page today and all throughout our 30 Days of Thanks to share your gratitude.