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.
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!

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.

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.


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

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