Editor’s note: Veteran Larry Guenzler of Dixon served as a guardian on the Lee County Honor Flight, which visited Washington, D.C., on Oct. 4. In this essay, he shares his perspective on the experience.
What are Honor Flights all about? Of course, it’s all about the memorials and monuments we hold sacred to this country. But really, it’s about much more than that.
It’s an adventure that starts on the tarmac at Dulles International Airport, air cannons welcoming us, wall-to-wall people cheering and chanting “USA! USA!,” and everyone shaking our hands and slapping us on the back through the terminal and all the way to the waiting buses. How can it get any better?
Truth is, it did get better: Every time the police-escorted buses stopped. At the National Air and Space Museum, looking up to see some of the most historic planes, famous fighters, troop planes, and spy planes from around the world. A special drive around the Marine Memorial. The Lincoln Memorial, a solemn and an enlightening reflection. The Washington Memorial. The Jefferson Memorial. The Capitol.
Across the street, you walk up on the squad coming out of a grove of trees, but it’s really The Three Servicemen sculpture that guards the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and The Wall that contains over 58,000 names of servicemen and women who paid the ultimate price or are missing in action.
I looked for and found some names of men I served with and scratched their name on a piece of paper. Of course one is tempted to look for his own name.
As I headed down a path between the memorials I came across a sight that took my breath away. I wasn’t expecting to see it and it was very moving. It was The Vietnam Women’s Memorial: a statue of three women caring for a wounded GI who was lying over the lap of one of the women who was kneeling to care for him. Nearly 11,000 American women were stationed in Vietnam; 90% of them were nurses. There were also hundreds of non-military women who served alongside those in uniform.
There is a short walk to the Korean War Memorial. The highlight is a large granite wall that bears the truth carved in it: “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE.”
Nothing compares to Arlington National Cemetery for the Changing of the Guard. It is a solemn occasion, as we are reminded of by the Sergeant of the Guard at the beginning of the ceremony. The Honor Flights are very special to the tenders of this solemn ceremony. We were notified that the guard on duty will make a special extra scuff of his heel during the routine in appreciation of those veterans present.
Our time at the World War II Memorial included a private ceremony within our Honor Flight. Before our group picture earlier in the day we put a folded-up flag and a wreath in a wheelchair in memory of a veteran who was supposed to be with us but who died three weeks before. We pushed it everywhere we went. The flag and wreath were placed at the Illinois column.
The Air Force Memorial is on a little knoll across the street from the Pentagon. This memorial is very simple but powerful. A life-size statue of the Honor Guard and a concrete replica of “jet-wash” going up- up- up and twisting as it goes up, seemingly out of sight. These two structures meant a lot to me. First, my son was part of the Honor Guard for a year, which was life-changing for him, and where the “jet-wash” was built is in the exact flight path of the plane that hit the Pentagon on 9-11, which was life-changing for all of us.
Too soon, we were headed back to the Quad Cities.
Once the plane got on its flight path and leveled off and the seatbelt sign went off, there was an announcement over the intercom, “Well soldiers, what would a day in the military be without mail call?”
When I was in Vietnam, a little more than half of the GIs got no mail the year they were there. And I’m sure we’ve all heard about the treatment they got when they got home.
Our cadre were giving the veterans envelopes with their names on them. Inside were letters: drawings sent by little children, letters from kids in the upper grades, from businessmen, from housewives, from all walks of life with a common message: “Welcome home. Thank you for your service.”
When we landed, there were service members in dress uniforms standing at attention, city dignitaries, a throng of people who threw their arms around their heroes, saying “Welcome home. Thank you.”
It seems to me after being on two Honor Flights, one as a veteran and one as a guardian, that they are about that. It’s about showing appreciation and welcoming home to a bunch of heroes — heroes who may or may not have received those two things when they served.
The memorials and monuments were all beautiful, thought-provoking and emotion-grabbing. But a good slap on the back, a tender letter from home and a good “Welcome home, son, you did good” is what was needed.
About Honor Flight
Provides a free trip to a veterans so they can visit their memorial in Washington, D.C. A trained guardian personally escorts a veteran on the aircraft and accompanies them. Honor Flight is a not-for-profit organization that relies on tax-deductible donations. For information on how to signup, volunteer or donate, go to the Quad Cities chapter at HonorFlightQC.org.