Since its inception in 2005, the Honor Flight Network has flown an estimated 159,000 thousand veterans to Washington, DC to view their respective war memorial. While the number may seem staggering, organizers can’t get flights fast enough. More than 29,000 veterans are on the ever-increasing waiting list. Recently, two Rushford American Legion members had the privilege of taking their Honor Flight and for them, the wait was worth it.
Joel Johnson, of Rushford, is a Korean War veteran, who served as a an Army Ordnance Specialist, Third Class, from 1954-1957, as troops in Korea recovered from the three-year campaign. Joe McManimon, of Houston, is also a Korean War veteran, having served on the front, from 1951-1953 as Private, First Class, in transportation. While they figure they’ve known each other for decades, neither knew the other was making the same journey of remembrance.
Joel’s son, Jeff Johnson submitted the three-page application for his father. “Each veteran needs to have a guardian, so I suggested we do it together,” recalls Jeff. “My dad was a caretaker for my mom for many years, as she struggled with Parkinson’s. After she passed away, the following late spring or early summer, I brought up the idea of him going.”
They weren’t sure what to expect; the application was submitted right away and already the fall and most of the spring 2017 tours were full. “I never gave it another thought,” say the Joel. “I thought, we’d never get to go. It’s $100,000 for 100 people to go.”
That cost is covered completely by donation. Top priority given to WWII and terminally ill veterans and was only recently expanded to include Korea and Vietnam veterans. “Hubs” across the country serve as departure points for these veterans and their guardians, who are required to accompany in case of needed assistance. In the tri-state region, there are three Minnesota hubs, five in Wisconsin, and six in Iowa and yet, it’s estimated the lack of time and sufficient funding will prevent some veterans for taking the tour. Johnson was on the waiting list for a year before he was notified, a year ago, that he was selected to go.
Joe McManimon’s daughter, Margaret Knutson, also submitted his application. “I waited for a year, talked to dad and looked at his health. I knew the number of World War II veterans was getting lower and lower. Dad’s older, too; he’s 89,” she says. “He missed WWII by just a few years.”
As the tour date drew near, both veterans said the day was filled with a bit of apprehension and excitement. While Joel hadn’t been to DC since 1955 when he’d attended school for mechanics in Aberdeen, Md., he’d never flown. “I was definitely gonna go,” he laughs, recalling how he’d only ever traveled by ship during his military service. “Flying is a lot better than going by ship, I’ll tell you that,” he joked. “On the ship, everyone was seasick. You couldn’t pay me enough to go on a ship again!”
McManimon had never been to DC. The quiet, soft-spoken man wasn’t sure what to expect with such a long day. “It’s a lot to cover in one day,” he says.
The group departed from La Crosse Regional Airport on Saturday, September 23 as part of a larger contingent from the southeastern Minnesota region. The tour left at 5:30 a.m. and was scheduled to return to La Crosse at 10 p.m. that night – a whirlwind tour of the Arlington National Cemetery and the National Mall, including the WWII, Korean War, and Vietnam War memorials, and the Washington Monument.
Once they landed at Dulles Airport in DC, their whole experience shifted. Lining both sides of the concourse, from the gate, through the airport, to the baggage claim, people of all ages and walks of life greeted the veterans, thanking them for their service. They remember seeing school kids, high school students, a marching band, a military singing group, Miss Washington, DC, cheerleaders, American Legion Riders, and a color guard from the National Guard.
“It was the greatest thing on this Earth,” says Johnson. “We were treated like kings. We had the run of Washington, D.C., like we were the number one people out there.”
“It seemed like we were royalty. As a guardian, I was overwhelmed by how they treated the veterans,” adds Knuston. “It’s great! They should honor these individuals. They fought for the country we have and they need more respect.” Leaving from the airport, the group was further treated to a police escort, diverting traffic to make the one-day jaunt as problem-free as possible.
The only challenge for the group was a protest, which required the tour to be diverted. The rally, organized by Resist & Protest: March for Civility, ran six hours on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day, but it didn’t deter the group’s goal, other than frustrating some attendees. “There was talk of saying something to the vets, people in clown outfits, rapping out things, dressed like lunatics. For the vets and me, we felt disrespected. It’s a place of remembrance for veterans,” says Knutson.
“It didn’t seem right. They don’t understand the sacrifices we made,” says McManimon. “It’s hard to describe… the older generations just stepped up to the plate.”
“I wonder if any of them realize they’re able to protest because of these guys,” adds Jeff Johnson. “I think for a while Dad thought they were protesting the veterans being there, but it has nothing to do with the vets. They were just protesting current events.”
“I’m not sure what they were trying to accomplish. They were probably scared to get too close,” chuckles Joel Johnson.
The day was fast paced, but they remember not feeling rushed, but being allowed to go at their own pace at each site. Some places were more difficult than others. It was the first time for either to see the Korean War Veterans Memorial, which has lifelike statues of soldiers posed to appear like a platoon walking through a field.
“Dad was pretty quiet about it. He had to go to the front. He saw war,” she says Knuston. “We listen, but never pressure him to talk.” Still, he did talk about it a little and even pointed out a photo of a truck on the memorial wall similar to the truck he drove in the war. “He got quiet and wanted to sit and just look over the wall,” she adds.
Another highlight was Arlington National Cemetery, lined with tidy, sobering rows of white stones marking the graves of some 400,000 soldiers. At Arlington, the flight participants gathered around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to view the elaborate changing of the guard. “Everyone stopped and showed their respect,” says Knutson.
Despite all they saw, the greatest highlight may have been their time together. “Dad and I got a hotel the night before, so we didn’t have to get up so early. We went out for supper and spent two or three hours really talking and had a few beers together. It was one of the best times of my life,” says Jeff Johnson. “It’s amazing how it’s all put together; the highlight was spending time with dad.”
Among veterans, their humility often shrouds their service and casts a beaming pride onto their fellow soldiers. Despite their own service and sacrifice, they recognize and honor that of their comrades. “I think it should be said that Joe was there for the conflict. That’s more honorable than my service,” says Johnson respectfully. Over the years, I think people kind of looked down on soldiers. Now, there’s getting to be more respect for them.”
Improvements to the attitudes towards and care of our nation’s veterans can be improved, believes Johnson. “I’d like to see more medical care, for what they gave,” he says. “I’m in pretty good shape, but look at a lot of these that are homeless. Something happens, something to do with their minds, fighting in battles like that. It has a long lasting impact. That’s why these flights are so important. It’s something people can do for our area veterans.”
Four weeks after their Honor Flight, the veterans and guardians were invited to a special reunion including other flights from the hub. The organization had arranged a celebration, complete with a professional photographer for a group photo, and gifts including a photo disc and book, much like an annual, to remember the trip.
“We all had an Honor Flight polo shirt and it was something to see all the other polo shirts from different trips,” recalls Jeff Johnson. “We got to give back a little for the lifetime they gave to us.”
For more information on how to apply for an honor flight, as a veteran or guardian, or to donate for the cause, contact the Honor Flight Network at (937) 521-2400 or www.honorflight.org.