Old Glory Honor Flights resume with 54th mission
By Heather Graves
NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – For many veterans, it’s the trip of a lifetime.
“I tell everyone I know that I am going,” Navy veteran and Green Bay resident Cheryl Winkel said.
Since 2009, Northeast Wisconsin’s Old Glory Honor Flight hub has sent nearly 6,000 veterans on 53 missions to the nation’s capital for a day-long trip to visit the war memorials built in their honor.
Executive Director Diane MacDonald said the nonprofit’s mission is to “honor local war veterans, one mission at a time.”
MacDonald said organizers are excited to get back to it after the COVID-19 pandemic grounded all flights since October 2019.
With the national organization’s ban now lifted, the local group is ready to continue its mission with flights scheduled for Aug. 31, Sept. 15 and Oct. 20 – each filled with 100 or more World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans.
“Certainly we are dealing with a population that we are doing everything to keep them safe, and it’s really been a trying time,” MacDonald said. “Now that things have gotten better, COVID-related, at least at this point, we are going to be doing three flights this year.”
With all five flights canceled in 2020 and three more this past spring, more than 500 veterans are on the waiting list.
But MacDonald said that isn’t uncommon, and organizers will continue to do what they can to get every veteran who wants to make the trip on a flight in the near future.
“It’s been as high as 1,000, but we’ve done a really good job of pushing and doing as many flights as we can,” she said. “So I would expect next year we will have a really busy year again, as long as things sort of subside with the pandemic. So we are excited for next year, but really focusing on this year to make sure we are doing everything that we can to get our veterans out to D.C.”
Veterans will tour the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War memorials, as well as Arlington National Cemetery, which includes the changing of the guard.
MacDonald said groups will follow the requirements of the places they visit, which includes required masks on the plane.
Old Glory Honor Flight missions are free to all veterans.
MacDonald said it’s a meaningful way to say “thank you” for their service and sacrifice.
She said every detail of the trip is geared toward the vets, and ensures they get the red carpet treatment.
“It recognizes the sacrifices that they’ve made,” she said. “Many of our vets took off their gear and started jobs and started families. And many veterans have suffered from PTSD and didn’t really have a way to process their service. So, the honor flights are a remarkable way they can visit the memorials built in their honor. It is a way for them to honor those that didn’t make it home. It is a way for them to seek closure. And it’s a wonderful way for them to bond with other veterans.”
MacDonald said after filling an airplane with 100 veterans, “you better believe there are some really beautiful stories that are shared.”
“We’ve heard over and over again that it is kind of a gateway for them to talk about their service with their spouses or with their children or grandchildren,” she said. “We hear all the time that ‘Grandpa, or dad, or grandma never talked about their service, but they did after the honor flight.’”
Green Bay resident and Army veteran Bruce Lange couldn’t find the words to describe his excitement about the Aug. 31 flight, which he will do with four high school buddies – all of whom served in Vietnam.
“There are a couple of guys from Denmark that we all knew that were killed over there, so we will probably try to find their names on the wall,” Lange said.
Winkel, who served as a corp. WAVES in a hospital in Vietnam from 1969-72, is one of only two women signed up to participate in the 2021 flights.
“I am just excited to be able to go,” Winkel said. “To me, it is an honor to be able to go.”
As a passenger on the Sept. 15 flight, Winkel said she highly encourages other female veterans to do so as well.
It’s a sentiment MacDonald echoed.
“Many times when we have our female veterans, they don’t apply as readily as their male counterparts…” she said. “I think that sometimes we forget that women served too and it is good to remind people.”
Air Force veteran and Shawano resident Jim Parmentier served as an air traffic controller in Saigon, Vietnam for 13 months.
Parmentier applied for Old Glory Honor Flights nearly three years ago, and said he was shocked when he received the call for the Aug. 31 flight.
“I was just kind of in awe,” he said. “They said everyone gets picked eventually, but I didn’t expect it to be me. I am just thrilled to go.”
He said he is excited to be with a group of people his age who went through similar experiences.
“That is part of the thrill too,” Parmentier said. “And just thinking about all the people who came before you and some made it and some didn’t… the fact that they know that people do appreciate the freedoms they do have and you contributed something to that freedom is a humbling experience.”
MacDonald said a staple and very important part of the return flight are the Mail Call packages.
She said it is made up of cards and letters from family, friends, neighbors and others expressing their appreciation and thanks for the veteran’s service – a throwback to how they received news from home when they were deployed.
“What I love about Mail Call is it really focuses on the veteran, because we don’t really take the time as a society to tell them how much we appreciate their service and this is one really great way families and friends can show that appreciation to their veterans,” MacDonald said.
MacDonald said volunteers make sure every veteran receives a Mail Call package.
Family, friends and the general public are encouraged to welcome home their local heroes at the Appleton International Airport for all three flights.
Return flights land around 8:30 p.m.
Masks are required for all airport visitors.