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With Honor Flight, area veterans visit military memorials and museums in Washington, D.C. While there, they reflect on and share what it means to serve one's country.
August 28, 2022
It is 4 a.m. on Aug. 25, and I’m standing in the dark and rain waiting to board a bus with a group of military veterans. We’ve been at McHenry High School’s Upper Campus for an hour already, standing outside gathering luggages, changing into shirts based on our groups, eating donuts and drinking coffee. We board the buses, and we’re off.
The bus is dark except for the few overhead lights on, and the roads are practically empty. I have never been at school or on a bus this early before in my life; it feels strange, but the men and women on this bus have seen much less comfortable conditions.
This trip is known as the Veterans Network Committee Honors Flight, where an organization takes war veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorials and museums for wars and branches they served in.
This year, MCHS sponsored the Honors Flight event and sent three students to report and cover the experience for Warrior Student Media. I was lucky enough to be chosen to be a part of this amazing experience, document the veterans’ experience and travel along with Cooper Ten Bruin and Rayaan Ahmed of the Warrior Weekly and our advisor, Mitch Stengel.
On day one, we land at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Virginia, where the veterans are greeted with applause from other travelers around the terminal as they exited the plane.
Army veteran Jim Adgu says, “[The airport welcome] actually brought a tear to my eye.”
From the airport, we head out to our first destination: The Capitol, which is currently under construction. There, the veterans are able to take group pictures, talk to one another and admire the buildings and statues in the area.
“[The Capitol has] a lot of history, good and bad,” says Navy veteran Lilymarlene Flynn.
We then head over to the United States Navy Memorial, taking our time to get a tour of the city on the way. There, the statue of the Lone Sailor stands in the middle of an outlining fountain consisting of water from all seven seas. The Lone Sailor Statue is a symbol of the men and women who have served in the Navy and is the Navy Memorial’s way of honoring, recognizing and celebrating our troops.
All of our group’s Navy veterans gather around to take a picture in front of the statue. The three high school students who are training and planning to join the military, known as Cadets, also partake in the Seven Seas Baptism tradition. This is a Naval tradition where soldiers fill their hats with the water from the fountain surrounding the memorial. They then put their hats back on, essentially pouring the water over them, like a baptism.
“What our whole program is really about is preparing kids and youth for the rigors of military life,” Cadet Walter Chesney explains. “[Being at the Navy Memorial] was a wonderful experience not just for myself … but also to see how impactful it was on the veterans … And now I truly understand the gravity that they’re the reason it’s there.”
The Air Force Memorial is truly beautiful, with three curved spires that seem to go into the sky. Everyone enjoyed laying down in the center of the spires to take pictures. Air Force veterans get together for a picture and talk amongst each other. We then head back to the hotel for dinner before calling it a night.
As I lay in bed that night, reflecting back on our first day, I get the feeling that this trip will stick with me forever, and that I will make amazing memories here — day one alone proves that. I think about the veteran I interviewed earlier and silently thanked him for all he has done. I think of all the other people I will get to talk to in the next few days, and fall asleep with a smile on my face.
Personally, my first morning in the district starts out rushed and chaotic, but the panic and running around is worth it for the day we have. Ten Bruin and I run downstairs to meet Stengel and Ahmed for breakfast. We all sit down and eat pancakes, potatoes and eggs before heading out to the buses to get ready for our first full day there.
Our first stop is the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va. This memorial depicts the iconic picture of a group of soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima. There, the Marines of the group gathered together for a picture and sang “The Marines’ Hymn,” which was incredible to witness.
While in Arlington, we then go to Arlington National Cemetery and get to watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We also happen to be there on the one year anniversary of the return of U.S. troops from Afghanistan; they have a wreath ceremony with the families of those who didn’t make that journey home.
Right next to the cemetery is the Military Women’s Memorial. The memorial is a large building curved around a fountain, with a glass ceiling to represent the “glass ceiling” women broke to get to where we are today. It is a way to honor the women who have served, especially those who had to fight to serve our country. Our group’s three women veterans on the trip receive awards during lunch for their service presented by the Women’s Memorial volunteers.
“This memorial is dedicated to all those women that have done something for this great nation,” says Norah McDonnell, a volunteer at the memorial. “I’m very proud to volunteer here because, being a service woman, it’s been long coming.”
We then go to the National Museum of the U.S. Navy. The veterans have time to wander both the main museum and the Cold War display. The main part of the museum us dedicated to the history of the Navy troops, equipment and battles. In a separate building is the Cold War display, which, although smaller, is like an entirely separate museum dedicated to that conflict.
The World War II Memorial, in my opinion, is one of the most scenic places in the district. This memorial has the states’ names engraved into pillars surrounding a fountain and pond. People are allowed to sit with their feet in the water as a sign of respect for the veterans who served in World War II.
All within the same few blocks are the Korean War, Vietnam War and Lincoln Memorials. This is the most memorable and emotional part of our day, as many of the veterans served in the Vietnam War, and one even served in the Korean War.
The Korean War Memorial consists of a long wall with etchings of soldiers and depictions of the battle. Across the pathway is a field of 19 soldier statues, numbered to depict the different branches of the military.
Bill Sensor, the only veteran on this trip who served in the Korean War, shares the hardships of fighting there and how being at that memorial brought back all these feelings. “It was like an anthill coming at you – never ending. Never ending … [Those soldiers] were all lost forever, lost forever.”
We then head to the Vietnam War Memorial, which is a 246 foot long wall, with 58,318 names of the soldiers who died fighting in the war engraved on it. The veterans are able to look for names of those they knew and paid their respects.
“I’d never been to the wall. That was heavy duty, but I had back up,” says Adgu.
After the Vietnam War, Ralph Hayford received a metal bracelet of a soldier he did not know. The bracelet belonged to a man named Floyd Warren Olsen, who was M.I.A. for some time during the Vietnam War and, after not being found, was declared dead. Although Hayford doesn’t know this man, he brought his bracelet with on this trip, finds Olsen’s name on the wall, and leaves the bracelet there as a sign of respect.
From there, the Lincoln Memorial is just a short walk. People are given the chance to climb up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, or take the elevator as needed, to see it up close. This is a chance for everyone to chat, relax and take pictures.
Back at the hotel that night, after dinner, many veterans gather in the bar area to chat and spend some more time together. Ten Bruin, Ahmed, Stengel and I sit at a table towards the back of the restaurant area and continue our work. It ends up being another late night, but we are all happy, and enjoying our time in the district.
Our final full day in the district starts at around 8:30 a.m. after breakfast as we load the buses. We only have two destinations planned, allowing for plenty of time at each stop as well as lunch and dinner.
Our first stop is the National Museum of the Marine Corps. This museum captures the history of the Marine Corps in chronological order. We also get to watch a short film on the training and jobs of a Marine and general combat.
“Seeing that brought back a lot of memories,” says Navy veteran Craig Kopstain after watching the movie.
We then eat lunch at the museum and wandered around for a few hours; I personally learn a lot from there and have a really good time. I not only learn from the museum, but from the people I talk to there and the stories I get to hear.
The National Museum of the United States Army us a 30 minute drive away. This is a new museum established in 2020.
“This place is about the courage of the American soldier,” says the president of the museum, General Schmidt.
We also eat dinner at the museum and celebrat our last night in the district. The Cadets are recognized for their work and training. They all receive the Challenger Coin.
Director Aaron Stain, Navy veteran Craig Kopstain and Stengel also speak and thank the veterans and volunteers of the trip. The veterans then receive a surprise mail delivery from their loved ones, as they would have when they served. It is an emotional, meaningful end to a trip that has felt emotional and meaningful from its very first moment.
We then load the buses back up and head back to the hotel one last time. Once we return, everyone gathers in the bar area to talk, spends some time together and enjoys their last night.
It is 9 p.m. on Aug. 27, and I’m sitting in the back of the hotel bar/restaurant with a bunch of military veterans.
For me personally, this trip has been an incredible experience and I cannot believe it has all really happened as I’m sitting in the back of the hotel restaurant, listening to the veterans converse, writing this. I have spoken to so many amazing people, who inspired me to persevere through any situation. These men and women have taught me to be thankful and appreciative for every opportunity and chance you get, as it is all worth it.
As I run laps up and down the halls 1 a.m. to stay awake — I’m on deadline, after all — I can’t help but think of how tired we will be tomorrow, as we still have more work to do. But I know it is all worth it to share this experience and tell everyone’s story. So, I take one more lap and head back into my hotel room, so our team can finish our work.
And, as the veterans would say, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.