Honor Flight returns home to grateful community
By Josh Staloch
GREEN BAY – When the World War II Memorial opened in Washington, D.C. in April of 2004, a need was created to get Veterans from across the country, many of whom were in their 80s at the time, to the nation’s capital to experience it.
Out of this demand, the National Honor Flight Network was created and, in 2008, Stars and Stripes Honor Flight formed to give Veterans from Wisconsin the opportunity to make the trip to D.C.
On Saturday, Oct. 8, for the second time, a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight left Green Bay’s Austin Straubel International Airport and returned later that same evening to a massive crowd of supporters who lined up inside the airport from the terminal’s gate and downstairs to the front door to welcome them home.
Paula Nelson, a former president of Stars and Stripes Honor Flight who still proudly volunteers with the organization while sitting on the board of directors for the National Honor Flight Network, said it’s important for our country’s Veterans to know that we, as a society, are appreciative and aware of the sacrifices they made and that those sacrifices matter.
“We have memorials across the country that Veterans are just not getting to see,” she said. “And they’re not there just for tourists, they’re there also for those Veterans, so that they can know that their sacrifice mattered.”
The trips are never short on powerful emotions.
The Veterans who take the flight, according to Nelson, deal with a wide range of emotions along the way from guilt to anger to regret and beyond.
She said that the trips, sharing the day with other Veterans and their guardians, who are more often than not someone they are close to, and seeing these memorials is a trifecta that only happens on an Honor Flight.
Some are unexpectedly overcome with emotion.
Nelson recalled a moving experience she had on a recent Honor Flight.
“I was sitting next to a Vietnam Veteran on the flight and all of a sudden, he broke down crying,” she said. “I thought maybe he was nervous or afraid of flying so I asked him if he was okay and if there was anything I could do to help. He told me, ‘I’m just so ashamed.’ I asked him what he was ashamed of and he said ‘It’s been 50 years and I’ve never visited them. I’ve never taken the time to see them.’ They talk about that wall, the names on that wall, like it’s truly a grave site.”
Nelson said that upon boarding the plane for the flight home on that particular trip, the same Veteran gave her the biggest hug and thanked her for helping him take the opportunity to say goodbye.
Finally making the trip
2nd Lieutenant Steven Olson, who is 82 years old, was reluctant to take a spot on a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight.
Having completed his time as an officer in the Marine Corps before fighting began in Vietnam, Olson didn’t want to take a seat that might otherwise be given to a Combat Veteran.
Eventually, however, he made the decision that he would participate in an Honor Flight as a guardian. Olson was all set to go for the inaugural flight out of Green Bay as an escort when the organization let him know that he was no longer needed as a guardian but that he could go as a Veteran.
Olson decided to give it a shot and selected his youngest son, Jarrod to be his guardian.
Though Olson had previously been to D.C. to visit the memorials on his own, he said the experience he had with Stars and Stripes Honor Flight was unforgettable and unique in its own right.
Not only was Olson able to share the experience with his son, he said he also had some profound moments with his fellow Veterans along the way.
“It would still have been impressive as hell to go as an escort,” Olson said. “But being able to go with my son and share that with him really added something to it.”
Olson said it’s very important for him and his fellow vets to see the kind of outpouring of support they were greeted with upon their return to Wisconsin last Saturday, to know that we, as a community, realize how important the sacrifices made by Veterans truly are.
“Walking through the airport, seeing that amount of support was the first time I had ever seen it personified like that,” he said. “It really gives you goosebumps. It took my breath away. I spoke to a Combat Veteran from the Army on the trip who said that when he returned home from Vietnam, he was spit on. I’ve heard that before and it seems unbelievable, especially when you see the kind of welcome we got the other night.”
Since 2008, Stars and Stripes Honor Flight has helped more than 7,000 Veterans from WWII, Korea and Vietnam, as well as terminally-ill Veterans from other wars, make the trip to see their memorials.
The organization operates thanks to the work of more than 200 volunteers and relies solely on donations to make the trips happen.
Learn more at starsandstripeshonorflight.org