Friday, September 23, 2016

The Honor Flight - The Human Factor

For an overview of The Honor Flight and our experience leading up to takeoff, check out The Honor Flight - a Guardian's Perspective.

For my reflections upon visiting the memorials, got to The Honor Flight - Visiting the Memorials.


At the Quad City International Airport over 2000 people decked out in red, white and blue packed the terminal with American flags and signs to welcome home our veterans. The Patriot Guard and current officers greeted the men and women while a bagpipe player blasted patriotic songs. As the veterans made their way slowly through the throng of adoring fans, everyone reached out to shake their hands and thank them for their service. I wondered: how many people are Democrats, and how many are Republicans? It didn't matter. That crowd proved that although we may be a country divided politically, when it really matters we can all come together regardless of our convictions. What an encouraging and uplifting sight to see.
Photo Cred: Michelle Hughes
Photo Cred: Michelle Hughes
Separated from The Jacks as they rode in front on carts, I made my way behind a few veterans I didn't know. I enjoyed watching their expressions: bewilderment at the throngs of people, then humility as they shook hundreds of outstretched strangers' hands, then overwhelming elation as their family members cried out to them from the crowd. A teenaged girl snapped pictures from the shoulders of her brother, going positively bezerk when she saw her beloved Grandfather. "GRANDPA! GRANDPA!" she shouted. Her granddad, immediately ahead of me, wrapped her up in a huge bear hug, tears streaming down his face. That man didn't likely receive a welcome home like this after his years of service. But this time, he got to return home to his entire, extended family, all there because of the sacrifice he and our other veterans made. He didn't want to continue his welcome home march. He was already home, in the arms of his family.

The real importance of the trip hit me at that moment. It wasn't the memorials. It's not even the veterans themselves. It's The Human Factor. The interactive moments between other humans that bring out the deepest emotion we feel is where this all comes together. And I saw the beginnings of it on our flight home.

Once we all boarded the plane in Dulles, everyone collapsed into their seats in exhaustion. The lights went down, and for the first time since the wee hours of the morning, the veterans and guardians had a moment to collect their thoughts, unstimulated, to reflect. Some slept. Some chatted quietly. Most retreated in their minds to the images and conversations of the day. After thirty minutes though, the lights blasted us awake, and the crew came through the aisle with yet another meal. The quintessential meal probably every veteran craved upon his return home decades ago. The meal that makes America America.

A cheeseburger.

Suddenly the atmosphere of the plane shifted, and the men and women tapped into their reserves, fueling themselves for that remarkable welcome home. The energy grew with each mile we drew closer to the airport. But before we landed, The Honor Flight organization surprised them one last time, with something tangible from the trip that the veterans can hold dear forever.

Mail call.

Imagine yourself away from home, removed from everything you know and love and desire. Perhaps you're in a strange country, struggling to stay alive, when the immediate gratification of instant communication with a loved one did not exist. Mail call had to have been the highlight of their lives, whether they served in-country or thousands of miles away.

Dennis, the Army Veteran who sat to my left on the flight, shared his letters with me. He beamed. I mean, the guy bursted with appreciation for the letters from his wife. His daughter. The parents of the children his wife watches in her in-home daycare. He read each one and carefully returned them to their envelopes, then back into the large envelope they arrived in.

"I will cherish these until the day I die," he resolved, as he patted the envelope lovingly.

I smiled. We both knew his homecoming would prove dramatic, but those letters? They will last forever, reinforcing and cementing the visitation of the memorials that day, and more importantly, the love and adoration of his friends and family for his service. Those letters embody The Human Factor
with heartfelt gratitude and love pouring off the page from every. single. person.

Susan, Floyd's daughter, read my dad a few of his letters on the plane. He asked her to stop as he wanted to save the rest to share with Mom and me over coffee the next morning. In total, he probably received over 20 letters, plus hand drawn pictures from my cousins's entire 4th grade classroom.

The letters from his generation were clear: his peers fully understood most deeply what the Vietnam soldiers went through and how poorly they were treated upon their return home in the late '60s. Their tone and words were all very similar. Here are a few examples:

Mr. Kahling,
We want to thank you for your service to our country. We hope you enjoyed the Honor Flight. Vietnam War era was a difficult time to serve. None of you servicemen got the respect and recognition you deserved. Thanks again.
Norm and Nancy Wirtala
(Parents of Jill Moffitt Patrick, HS friend of your daughter)

Dear Jack,
We hope you enjoyed the Honor Flight to our capital. Washington D.C. is such a beautiful place to see. We are glad that you were chosen to go. We appreciate your service in the Army to help keep us all free.
Sincerely,
Larry and Linda Fehlker (Michele Wells' parents)

The letters of my generation still managed to demonstrate deep gratitude with an acknowledgment that we can't even begin to understand their sacrifices. But we're a grateful bunch of Gen Exers nonetheless, because if they hadn't returned, we wouldn't be here. We particularly loved Rebecca's story:
Some of my other friends thanked Dad. These left me really emotional, and grateful he returned from Vietnam so I could be more than a "gleam in his eye" (a favorite dad-ism prior to my conception) and know such wonderful people.

Welcome Home Hero!
Thank you for your service to our country. You will never be forgotten.
-Jill and Jerome Patrick

Dear Jack,
I worked with your amazing daughter for a few years time. She is one of the best people I know and am so grateful for all the fun times we had. I want to thank you for all the time you served protecting our country. I can't even begin to imagine all that you sacrificed to keep us safe. My brother is a Navy pilot in Meridian, MS now. It truly takes a very special person to do what you did. I am sure you have incredible stories and made lifetime friends from your years of service. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart.
-Lisa Slutz

Dear Jack -
Thank you doesn't seem a sufficient enough term for the appreciation for the service and sacrifice you made for our country. You are a true hero! Its been many, many years since I've had the pleasure of meeting you. I had the opportunity to know your daughter her senior year at Fox HS. We were cheerleaders together and I admired her leadership and strong will even then. It is apparent that you are a true man of character and faith to have raised such a fine young lady who I am fortunate enough to still call a very dear friend of mine 25 years later. While you may not remember me, please know that you have been in my continued prayers for quite some time. Especially now as you participate in the Honor Flight of the Quad Cities and visit the memorials dedicated to all those who also sacrificed. May God continue to bless YOU and all the Veterans! Thank you so much for your service.
-Kim Layton

The letters from complete strangers left Dad bewildered. "Why did they write me?" he inconceivably asked. And that's what I love about my dad, even with his damaged brain. Sometimes the simplest questions provide the deepest understanding.

"Because they're grateful, Dad. There's nothing they can do but say 'Thank you,' and mean it. Yesterday you kept saying 'You're welcome.' Sometimes that's the most powerful exchange in the English language."

The closer the letters came to our nuclear family, the more emotive they became. I choked out my niece and nephew's letters, and could hardly read my brother's. Just hearing their voices on paper put us all in tears, as we miss them so much.

I opened my husband's letter, and started bawling before I read "Dear Jack." With kids in summer camp for over 10 years, he never wrote a letter by hand. He always typed them. But he scrawled this letter out longhand and thoughtfully included a color seal of The United States of America and a picture of a Huey helicopter on the page. My dad's shoulders shook with sobs as I read it aloud.

Dear Jack,
First and foremost I would like to say that I could not have asked for a better father-in-law! You have allowed me to become a part of your family and for that I will always be grateful.
Thank you for your selfless service to our country. Without people like you, I would not be sitting here writing this letter. Enjoy your day and feel very proud of your accomplishments.
P.S. Don't let your wife read this or I will have to tell her the BIG secret you told me on my wedding night!
Love,
Tony

His postscript garnered giggles through the tears. That man can bring levity to all seriousness. He left my mother perturbed at the details behind that BIG secret. :)

My punky kids delayed in writing their letters, to the point where I sent scaling texts, threatening bodily harm if they didn't have them to me by 5:00 on the day of the flight. Their letters came through before the deadline, and I scanned them on the bus. My throat tightened so I quickly closed the messages. When I read them to Dad, we all free fell into a sea of tears.

Dear Grandpa,
First of all, thank you so much for fighting for our country. Without you and the rest of the US Armed Forces' efforts, I would not be sitting where I am today as a female college student. Your strength in everything you've done in life (whether I saw it myself or heard in stories from you) motivates me. I am motivated to fight for my education and future success. And I know you'll always be there cheering me (and the Badgers) on. I admire you so much Grandpa and consider you one of my role models, always reminding me to stay strong in the tough times and celebrate the good times. I can't wait for you to come visit Madison and drink a beer with me while watching the Badgers. I love you so much Grandpa, thank you for everything.
Love,
Kahley

Grandpa,
Thank you: Expression. 1) a polite expression used when acknowledging a gift, service, or compliment, or accepting or refusing an offer.
"Thank you for your service."
This does not describe what I want to say to you. What you did for our country cannot be thanked. What you did for our country has no rightful reward. What you did was so great there is nothing I nor anyone else can do to show you what you deserve. What I am trying to say is, for your service, a mere thanks will not suffice for how thankful I am. Without your service I may not be here. It's easy to think your actions meant very little in the grand scheme of things but it didn't. You were beyond helpful in not only the war against communism but in the war for your family. Had you not come back, there would not be six people in this world. I love you, Grandpa. It's because of you I'm alive. It's because of you we are still a free nation and it's because of you this country is so great.
I love you,
Jakob Czupek

I've never been more proud of anything either child has written.

My mom's letter was deeply personal, could be no closer to Dad' heart, and clearly showed the deep love between the two of them. But even though they've been best friends through the best and worst of times, as she said in her letter, their crowning achievement - more than his service - is their family.

The Human Factor. It's powerful.

Please, I implore you all, thank a veteran the next time you see one. Attend a parade, stand as they walk by, and climb a damned lamppost so you can cheer a little more loudly. Tap on their shoulder in the grocery store if you notice they're wearing a shirt or hat with the word "veteran" on it, take their hand in yours, look deeply into their eyes, and express your gratitude.
Because of them, we are still the land of the free and the home of the brave.

XOXO,
Jen


To find an Honor Flight near you, visit www.honorflightnetwork.org.
To donate to the Honor Flight of the Quad Cities, visit www.honorflightqc.org and click on "donations."









Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Honor Flight - Visiting the Memorials


For an overview of The Honor Flight and our experience leading up to takeoff, check out The Honor Flight - a Guardian's Perspective.


Upon landing at Dulles airport, the veterans were welcomed yet again by adoring fans. Police officers, soccer moms, retired gentlemen, babies, other veterans, and local Honor Flight volunteers all gathered to welcome us to our nation's capital. One woman recognized us as a father/daughter duo, and everyone started oohing and aahing. A young mother stood there, baby in her arms, tears streaming down her face as we strode by, unable to speak. I held back my own tears at the warm, moving welcome.

Our first stop of the day landed us at the National Air and Space Museum. A sweet WWII veteran served as our docent for the tour, his wit and knowledge of the aircraft in the museum uncanny. As we rounded the corner to the Vietnam aircraft, I spied the Huey Helicopter. "There it is, Dad!"
"Yeah, but no," he replied. "It's not the right one."
"What do you mean?"
"That's a Delta."
"And you didn't fly in a Delta?"
"Nope."
"Well, then what?" I asked skeptically.
"B."
"You mean Beta?"
"NO! I mean B!!"

With that settled, he contemplated the next aircraft on the tour, and started laughing.
"What's funny?"
"Aw. Them sumbitches."
"Who?"
"I don't know."

Aphasia is so annoying. If it bugs me, I can't imagine how frustrating it is for Dad. He's got a story to tell. He can remember it vividly, yet his brain can't formulate the words to relay his jogged memory. Encouragement helps.

"Try, Dad," I implored him. "I want to know what you're thinking." I watched his eyes dart back and forth, desperately trying to come up with another way to share his memory. "We were out in that," as he pointed back to the Huey.

"In your B model Huey?"
"YES!"
"On a mission?"
"Yep."
"And something happened with this other plane?"
"Yes. Them sons a bitches were out shooting target practice!"
"With you flying below them?" Suddenly I understood.

Somewhere near the Soc Trang Air Base, Dad took off on a mission probably with a few other helicopters and their crews, just doing their jobs, accumulating "flight pay." Maybe they were looking for something specific, or maybe it was a shoot-anything-that-moves mission. Suddenly a much greater firepower started buzzing shots over Dad's open air penthouse with no warning, likely from a much higher elevation.

"Well that's rather terrifying. What did you do?"

"We got the hell out of there!" he laughed. He looked back at the airplane, clearly so many other thoughts lost in his brain. But that's OK - he told me something new - something I don't remember him telling me before his stroke years ago when we bellied up at a bar and he ripped lose on everything he could remember about the war. That moment in the National Air and Space Museum was golden, and I'll treasure it forever.

As we headed back to the bus, I asked Dad what he thought.

"It was all right."

I'm guessing that's not the ringing endorsement the Honor Flight set out to achieve. At the end of the day though, Jack B. said he most enjoyed the museum. Proof that every stop means something unique to each veteran, and the trip truly provides something worthwhile for all.

After the museum we made our way to the National Mall complements of a police escort. I wasn't sure how Team Jack would react at the memorials. Given that neither man lost close friends during their service, I suspected they'd be more reflective than anything.

The entire group gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for a picture, and Dad immediately decided he wanted some photos with the Washington Monument in the background.
Meet Terry, in the blue, also a veteran but acting as a guardian on our trip. He received word the night before that a seat was available on the flight and he joined us to help out with Team Jack.
I wish I would have talked to Terry more throughout the day. I know he likes to play pickle ball, he served in the Marines, and volunteers in the Patriot Guard and the USO. There's so much more to him - and to Jack B. - that I wish I knew. I also regret not having more time to talk to the other veterans throughout the day. I know they all have stories like Dad's about nearly becoming target bait. Or like Floyd's about interactions with civilians, or like Richard's who drove a sergeant in his jeep every day through Agent Orange near the DMZ. I wish I had the chance to talk to every other veteran to learn their story and personally thank them for their service. Like many things in life, the really good moments leave us wanting more, perhaps wishing we could have given more of ourselves. That's how I started feeling in the afternoon. I wanted the trip to last longer, even though that wasn't feasible.

Grateful for Terry's help so Jack B. could move through the memorials at a faster pace, Dad and I took our time meandering through the Korean memorial.
As we contemplated the soldiers in the juniper bushes, their weathered, stone faces representative of the 5.8 million soldiers who fought in the three year war, a man approached us. He had olive-colored skin, a chiseled jaw, and piercing green eyes that unmistakably revealed deep emotion. He wore an army green hat embroidered with "Vietnam Veteran." He stopped in front of my dad, knelt to the ground, took Dad's hand into both of his and drew a shaky breath. "Thank you for your service," he whispered. A phrase we'd already heard multiple times that day, but this time it was different. He studied dad's face, lingered a little longer than usual, then stood up and looked at me. Tears welled in both our eyes, and for the first time mine spilled over. I opened my arms, and said, "Thank you for your service." We embraced, then looked into one another's eyes, studying each other's face.

He walked away. My dad, confused, asked: "Who the hell was that?"
"He was a guy just like you, Dad. Just a guy like you."
As I write this now, the tears flow. That man, that green eyed Vietnam Veteran, made an indelible mark on my soul. Did anyone thank him as he clearly struggled through the memorials that day? Yes, I did, but did anyone else? Did anyone ask him his story? Did anyone make him feel special? Do they still?

Our next stop took us to the top of D.C. to the Air Force Memorial. I knew absolutely nothing about this monument prior to last Thursday, but this is where Floyd told me about his service in WWII as we looked out at the Washington Monument in the distance. The memorial itself is impressive, and had it existed before September 11, 2001 the Pentagon might have been spared. Jack B. insisted I take a picture from a specific spot in the memorial so I could get the entire structure into my wide angle lens. Smart man.
After the quick stop at the Air Force Memorial we paused for an even quicker stop at the Women's Memorial, then continued into Arlington Cemetery to witness the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns (there's actually more than one unknown soldier being guarded there - fun fact). Vehicle access is not normally allowed in the cemetery, but exceptions are made for Honor Flight busses.

Arlington Cemetery is massive, beautiful, and remarkable.

But guess what? My dad left feeling critical. With some frustration and angst, and despite all the beauty he took in at that cemetery, "General Hill" left him discontented.

"They're all the same. They're all the same!" he insisted. I could tell he was getting emotional about something important to him.

"Who's all the same, Dad?"

"ALL OF THEM!" he hollered.

I searched my brain, worried I'd get fired as his guardian if I didn't figure it out quickly. "You mean all the dead?"

"YES! YES!" he shouted.

"OK, Dad. You excited to see the World War II Memorial?" I agreed with him to quiet him up, then changed the subject.

Later I thought about it. He didn't like the fact that some headstones had three or four stars on them, indicating rank. In his mind, once we're dead, we're all dead whether you were a private or a general. Perhaps there's historical significance in those roles, but once a person's served, they've all served. They're all veterans, and they all contributed to our freedom. While Arlington celebrates all who served, there's a section our bus driver referred to as "General Hill" where larger, non-government issued headstones hold three or four stars to honor the dead buried there, clearly differentiating higher ranking soldiers. That's what Dad took issue with.

I understand his angst better now.

We ended the day at the WWII Memorial, a giant oval constructed out of inconceivable slabs of granite with every state represented in pillars around a Pacific Pavilion and an Atlantic Pavilion. It was my favorite of all the memorials, probably due to the engravings on the walls.
I also loved the open-ness, the fact that it's flanked by memorials dedicated to our to most famous presidents, and how the setting sun provided the perfect light and atmosphere for the last stop of our trip.
A former mason contractor, Dad kept remarking about the giant slabs of stone it took to build the monument. He was tiring out and suggested we head back to the bus. But not before a jogger in a Navy shirt stopped and thanked him for his service. Used to the drill, he said "You're welcome," and I asked the gentleman what brought him to town.

"A conference. I'm special ops out of San Diego."
"You mean, you're a Navy SEAL?" I asked incredulously.
"Yes," he humbly replied.
"Thank you for your service!" I replied with open arms. No way was I letting that man get away without an embrace. Yep. I hugged me a Navy SEAL in the Pacific Pavilion of the World War II Memorial!

On the bus ride back to Dulles, I overheard many of the veterans talking about their favorite part of the day. The Changing of the Guard was a highlight for many. My guess is because it involved The Human Factor. Real people, interacting, up close and personal.

That is my takeaway from the the experience. The memorials are special, of that there's no doubt. But the structures themselves do nothing. It's what happens at those memorials between people that inspire emotion and deep reflection. The veteran who finds his friends' names on The Wall. The child who feels closer to her great-grandfather at the WWII memorial. The stranger who contemplates the faces of the men at the Korean memorial, wondering what it must have been like for our soldiers to traipse through rice paddies with their ponchos blowing in the cold wind.
The daughter pushing her father in a wheelchair, talking to another Veteran, overcome with emotion. The Human Factor would play an even larger part in our return home. Come back Friday for my final reflections on The Honor Flight.

XOXO,
Jen

To find an Honor Flight near you, visit www.honorflightnetwork.org.
To donate to the Honor Flight of the Quad Cities, visit www.honorflightqc.org and click on "donations."












Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Honor Flight - A Guardian's Perspective

On Thursday, September 15, 2016, I flew to Washington, D.C. with the 37th Honor Flight of the Quad Cities as a guardian for two veterans.

The Honor Flight transports American veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorials dedicated to honoring their sacrifices. Priority is given to WWII and Korean veterans, and any veteran with a terminal illness. Vietnam veterans predominately made up the group on this trip for the first time since its inaugural flight in 2008.

Dad fought in Vietnam from 1967-1968 as a crew chief on a gunship.
In layman's terms, he managed the aircraft's maintenance and operated as a door gunner. During missions he fired a machine gun out of the open-air door on the side of the helicopter. Per Wikipedia, popular legend holds that "the door gunner on a Vietnam era Huey gunship had a lifespan of five minutes."

Luckily for me, Dad survived 12 months of missions hanging out the side of his Huey.

Given my dad's current health, I submitted an application earlier this year for him to participate in the flight. Since spouses are not allowed to fly with the veterans, I also submitted an application to act as his guardian because he has difficulty communicating. We received notification in July that we would be on the September flight.

The events began on Wednesday evening with a pre-flight dinner for the veterans. Upon pulling into the parking lot I knew this would be an evening he wouldn't soon forget, as traffic attendants whisked us to a front row spot, a marching band played patriotic songs while the veterans walked up to the doors, and a sweet woman compassionately greeted my dad and humbly escorted him to dinner. Men and women currently serving in our armed forces saluted him as he walked in.


"This is all for me?" he asked bewilderingly.
"All for you, sir," his escort warmly replied.

I choked back tears. There's something so incredibly respectful about a military salute, especially when it's aimed at your 72 year old terminally ill father, limping into dinner with his wife of 50 years by his side.

Dinner exceeded everyone's expectations. A week before the flight I received notification that I would also be guardian for Jack Bullard, so I immediately coined our little group "Team Jack." Jack B. served in the U.S. Navy from 1960 to 1963, and his job was to chart navigation as his amphibious ship searched out unknown islands in the Pacific, in addition to remaining on standby during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, listening to our National Anthem (everyone stood) and praying (yes - to God), we enjoyed a hearty midwest meal and a dessert that left the men and women talking the next day about the smorgasbord put before them. Major General Edward Daly provided some kind remarks and thanks to the veterans, and the Bettendorf Concert Choir entertained us with patriotic songs honoring all branches of the armed forces.

It was all very heartfelt and moving. Everyone bid one another good night, and we headed home to rest up for the big day.

That night excitement trumped melatonin. I slept like crap. So did Dad. So did every other veteran I talked to on Thursday, but it didn't stop anyone. Dad and I arrived at 5:00 a.m. to the little Moline airport that buzzed with excitement. News crews set up all over the terminal, and volunteers directed us efficiently through the check-in process.
In the check-in line, a spry, bright eyed gentleman stepped up behind me. "HI!" I greeted him, probably a little too enthusiastically. "What's your name?"

"I'm Floyd," he replied with a huge grin, just about to jump out of his shoes in joy. "What's your name?" Floyd trumped me on the gregarious scale. I mean, he was physically oozing 'thrilled to be here' juju.

"I'm Jen. Floyd, thank you for your service."

He hugged me, hard. Then proceeded to tell me that he's a WWII Veteran, couldn't wait for the day to launch, and was so happy to be there. Floyd's daughter also flew as his guardian, and I had the pleasure of meeting her later in the day. Floyd is full of stories about his time spent in Germany. While hanging out at the Air Force Memorial, he told me that he was a corporal in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

I just smiled and nodded, my ignorance evident. People, that's the Air Force before the Air Force existed! Prior to 1941, the Air Force as we know it today was called the Army Air Corps. This man fought in the Second World War in hostile territory so I can sit here today and type words onto a computer screen. So we can all go pay $5 for a crappy cup of coffee at Starbucks. So we may come home at night, kiss our family, and fire up the grill to roast pork chops and sweet corn.
Floyd, thanks again for learning how to fly on a wooden 2x4 from German civilians as they launched you off a mountain on a glider. You're a charmer and I will remember you, your hugs and kisses, and your entertaining stories for the rest of my life.

The efficiency and organization with which this flight is run is remarkable. The volunteers have pre-flight logistics down to a science. We all grouped up accordingly and walked through active military tunnels to the gate, where we enjoyed coffee and donuts before boarding the plane, with additional handshakes and gratitude for service from the active personnel.
Those young men and women in fatigues...they get to me. Emotions soared every time one of them took my dad's hand in theirs, looked deeply into his tired old eyes, and thanked him for his service. How many people - total strangers - stopped to thank Dad when he returned home from Viet Nam? Or Jack B. when he returned from the Pacific? Not many. Not many at all.
"Team Jack"
The final thank you came from the Major General himself. Clearly every veteran appreciated his words. He made every person feel special - even the guardians. Proof that no matter who you are or what your title is, a little personal thank you goes a long way.
The flight crew thanked the men and women for their service...clearly a common theme for the day but one that never grew old or tiresome. During the flight the guardians sat with veterans other than whom they spent the day with - another brilliant move by the volunteers organizing the event. I sat next to Dennis from Reynolds and Richard from Moline - two Army veterans - and I enjoyed asking them about their service, their current lives, and their families. They both lit up talking about their children and grandchildren.
Richard to my right, Dennis to my left. Both American Heroes.
Once we lifted off the ground and achieved cruising altitude, I remarked to Richard how beautiful our country looks from the air. The fields below, nearly ready for harvest, reflected purple and yellow hues of the rising sun promising a beautiful summer day. We both appreciated the grid-like formations from above. The captain played a familiar tune over the speaker and my throat tightened while the waterworks threatened.

"If tomorrow all the things were gone
I worked for all my life
And I had to start again
With just my children and my wife
I thank my lucky stars
To be living here today
'Cause the flag still stands for freedom
And they can't take that away
And I'm proud to be an American
Where at least I know I'm free
And I won't forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me
And I'd gladly stand up next to you
And defend Her still today
'Cause there ain't no doubt
I love this land
God Bless the U.S.A."

Throughout the day, the veterans received rock star treatment. A police escort through one of the busiest cities in the United States will do that, as will personalized tours through one of our country's greatest museums, volunteers dedicated to making wishes come true, and a bus driver who cracked the best military jokes I've ever heard.

They felt appreciated. Acknowledged. Special.

Come back tomorrow for some more reflection about our experience visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the Memorials, and Arlington Cemetery. There's much to say about this humbling and life-changing experience.

XOXO,
Jen

To find an Honor Flight near you, visit www.honorflightnetwork.org.
To donate to the Honor Flight of the Quad Cities, visit www.honorflightqc.org and click on "donations."