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home : news : news Friday, April 29, 2016

11/9/2013 Email this articlePrint this article 
Area veterans moved by Honor Flight experience

By Kate Howes
Staff writer

For six area veterans, the months they spent serving their country in combat has left them with dark, disturbing memories they willingly would prefer to forget. Yet, as much as it unavoidably reminded them of some of the most morbid times they ever lived through, they consider going on the 26th Honor Flight of the Quad Cities as one of the highlights of their lives.

Thursday, Oct. 31, Paul "Bing" Nielsen and John Schmitt of Low Moor and Elwood "Oddie" Marshall, Richard Hughes, Milo Soenksen and Jerry Green, all of DeWitt, boarded a plane at the Quad City International Airport that took them to our nation's capital to see in person the many monuments built in their honor.

"It was a fabulous trip," Marshall says. "It was a long day, but well worth it. It was first-class all the way."

Green, who is a Vietnam veteran and went along as a guardian for Hughes and Soenksen, and the rest of the men shared a day packed full with lots of sights to see and a highly emotional and heartwarming homecoming that was decades overdue.

While it was chilly and rainy back home, the weather was mild in Washington, D.C. The itinerary for the day included stops at the Udvar-Hazy Center, which displays thousands of aviation and space aircrafts, the World War II Memorial, the Air Force Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Women's Memorial, the Korean and Vietnam memorials and the Lincoln Memorial.

While all the veterans already were very familiar with the Honor Flight, it seemed this particular trip timed out just right for each of them to participate.

Hughes and Soenksen, veterans of the Korean War who served in the Army, were having coffee one morning when they decided they should go. Green had signed up to go on a previous flight, but due to being hospitalized with heart problems, had to postpone his duties as a guardian until the Oct. 31 flight. Marshall signed up a year and a half ago and got permission from his doctors to participate just in time for this trip.

Nielsen and Schmitt, who served in the Air Force and Army, respectively, during the Korean Conflict, simply decided the time had come to go and experience the flight while they still are able-bodied enough to enjoy it.

While each veteran had his favorite part of the day - the Changing of the Guard, seeing the Space Shuttle Discovery and other aircraft at the aerospace museum (where they all say they could've spent days looking at all the displays), the Korean, Vietnam and World War II Memorials - they all agreed being greeted by a couple thousand people at the airport when they arrived home definitely was an unexpected and much appreciated surprise.

Better late than never

Something else on which the veterans can agree, is after their time in the service was over, there was no fanfare, no parades and little more than a few family members who came to pick them up at a bus or railroad station.

"There was never a thank you," Soenksen says.

Marshall says seeing the kind of welcome soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan have been getting upon their return has left him a bit resentful veterans of past conflicts hadn't been granted the same consideration.

His granddaughter, Jo, who also wound up being his guardian for the day, told him if he went on the Honor Flight, he would get the kind reception for which he'd been waiting over 60 years.

And what a reception it was, Marshall shares.

"There we were, a bunch of old curmudgeons, with lumps in our throats and tears in our eyes," he relates. "There probably was between 2,000-3,000 people there. A 4-year-old boy saluted me. I'd never been kissed so much in my life. I could not ever have imagined being at a shindig like that."

"It was fascinating," Schmitt agrees. "What an honor."

Nielsen says the people waiting to greet them at the airport were of all ages - young children to adults in their 80s. It was a far different experience than when he was discharged and simply went home.

"It was quite an experience," he relates. "I didn't do as much as some people did, but I feel we all earned it."

Hughes and Soenksen hardly could contain their emotions reflecting on that night. "You can't believe the honor," Hughes shares.

"It was just about the best day of my life," Soenksen adds. "Just a great day."

Green says he feels fortunate to have been chosen to be a guardian. Marshall says without the guardians, there is no way the Honor Flights even would be possible.

"I don't know if people understand how important the part the guardians play in this is," he relates. "They are so needed and do so much for the veterans who can't get around. They are to be commended for what they do."

The veterans say although the trip unearthed some rather unpleasant memories they'd rather keep buried, if they had the chance to go on the Honor Flight again, they'd do it in a heartbeat.

"It's really something to see," Nielsen says. "I'd recommend it to any veteran who gets the chance to go. The Honor Flight committee has everything down to a science. It's so well organized. (In the service) I didn't see a lot, but what I did have to see I like to keep to myself. But this trip is really terrific."

Hughes recalled standing in mud and utter darkness; his boots soaked as rain poured down while he was on guard duty in Korea. The fear, the confusion and the feelings of desolation all came rushing back.

However, he adds, anyone who has the chance to go on an Honor Flight and doesn't take advantage of it is missing an excellent and unforgettable opportunity.

"I could never have imagined the number of soldiers who have died in the last four wars," Hughes relates. "It's astronomical. There are still 8,000 missing in Korea. Those memorials are for them and people need to see them and learn more about them

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