WASHINGTON, D.C. -- More than 50 veterans of World War II and the Korean War departed the Veterans Airport of Southern Illinois as the sun was rising on Tuesday, under the cover of the American flag, for the first Veterans Honor Flight of Southern Illinois.
Bryan Questelle, chairman of the Honor Flight Program, said, "Without the sacrifices they made, we don't have the freedoms we have."
The Honor Flight is a national program that raises funds to bring veterans who may not have the funds, or may not be healthy enough to go on their own, to Washington D.C. to view the memorials and monuments that commemorate the conflicts they fought in. The veterans, along with chaperones called "guardians," Honor Flight staff, and medical personnel fly to D.C. early in the morning, and visit as many monuments, museums and memorials as possible, before flying back that night.
Floyd Wilson, a Harrisburg resident and Navy veteran who served in the Korean War, was excited to go on the trip. "I'm running out of time, I think, so I'd better go see it," Wilson joked.
After a 6 a.m. departure from Marion, the plane landed to a surprise: a welcome ceremony from Pre-K students from Francis Scott Key School and a standing ovation from everybody in the terminal.
Lester Emery, a resident of Crab Orchard and a Korean War veteran, loved the show that was waiting for the Honor Flight.
"When we got off of the plane this morning, and all of the people were there, and all of the little children ... it made me want to cry," Emery said.
After departing the airport, the first stop on the tour was to the World War II memorial, which is dedicated to the memory of civilians and armed forces personnel who served during the war. The monument features a large fountain, 56 pillars for each of the 50 states and all U.S. territories, and the Freedom Wall. The Freedom Wall features 4,048 gold stars, each representing 100 Americans who died in the war.
For the oldest veterans on the trip, seeing the memorial brought mixed emotions.
Frank Huff of Goreville, an Army veteran who served in Europe during World War II, thought the memorial was nice, but joked that it would have been better without the rain.
"It's been worthwhile and interesting to think that I've been through that stuff," said William Thomas, a World War II vet and West City native.
After the World War II memorial, the buses made their way a short distance to the Korean War Memorial. Called the "Forgotten War," the most striking feature of the memorial is the group of soldiers, trekking through the brush. Just like at the World War II memorial, a wreath was lain in front of the lead soldier.
For many veterans like Emery, who were seeing the memorial for the first time, the experience brought back memories of their service.
"When I saw the soldiers walking, it reminded me of when I was in a tank, and they were walking alongside us as we were headed to the front," Emery said.
Emery, a veteran of the Korean War, was personally greeted at the memorial by a group of high school students from Wyoming who each took a moment to shake his hand and thank him for his service.
"It made me want to cry," Emery said. "Even when I think about it now, it makes me want to cry."
Other stops were made throughout the day: the monuments for the Navy, Marines, and Air Force; the women in military service memorial; and drive-bys of the monument to disabled veterans and many other D.C. landmarks.
The day closed with a solemn observance of the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as a Wreath-Laying Ceremony. The silent routines, punctuated by the clicks of soldiers' heels, gave the Honor Flight passengers a chance to reflect on their long and busy day, and the sacrifice of those who did not make it back, or whose bodies were never found.
The notion of sacrifice was present throughout the day's activities, whether it was shown on the carved faces of statues, or simply a thought in everybody's minds. The importance of what these veterans had gone through in their years of service had been driven solidly home.
"They don't even realize how important they were to us as young people," Questelle said. "They don't realize how important that sacrifice was for us.
"This is for you. This was built for you and what you did. Once we get back, I think that will be obvious for them."
Questelle's hopes were realized and put on display by the Goddess Swing Dance Group of Washington D.C., who were waiting at the airport to greet the crowd as they boarded to come home, and from the crowd of friends, family, and community leaders waiting for the veterans and guardians when they returned to the Veterans Airport on Tuesday night. The thanks that was evident on every face had been put into words earlier Tuesday by retired Rear Admiral Frank Thorp IV of the United States Navy, and the president and CEO of the Navy Memorial.
"We owe you -- literally -- a life of debt."