It’s all about saying thank you.
Military veterans arriving home on the May 12 Badger Honor Flight were greeted with hugs, handshakes and waving banners.
For U.S. Army Veteran Don Schmidt of DeForest, the appreciation and cheering was a long time coming. He was in his twenties when he returned from Vietnam and remembers a different response.
“When I came home there was nothing, there was no parade or thank you. We were called baby killers back then. I wish that we would have this back then,” Schmidt said of the May 12 homecoming at the Dane County Regional Airport in Madison.
Schmidt served in Vietnam from 1964-66 as a generator mechanic.
Schmidt’s daughters surprised him by signing him up for the Badger Honor Flight, with one daughter collecting over 800 letters from well-wishers that were given to veterans during mail call.
Wisconsin’s Badger Honor Flight has taken more than 1,200 veterans on the one-day trips to Washington D.C. to visit the Arlington National Cemetery, World War II Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Pentagon.
The national Honor Flight Network was started in 2007 by two men who wanted to get World War II veterans out to see the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. before they passed away.
Now the flights are concentrating on taking the last of the World War II vets, along with Korean War and Vietnam War veterans, or those from any conflict who are terminally ill. More than 1,200 Wisconsin veterans are on the wait list for the Badger Honor Flight.
The veterans all travel for free, thanks to private donations, business sponsorships, and fundraisers.
Taking a trip
Ninety-seven Badger Honor Flight veterans started arrived at Madison airport around 5 a.m. to check in for their flight, grab a cup of coffee and a doughnut from the American Red Cross Canteen.
Despite the early morning hours, the mood is jovial as a costumed Uncle Sam shakes hands with veterans and poses for pictures.
The flight arrived at Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C. around 10 a.m., as veterans are greeted with handshakes and hug from active military, Girl Scouts and Boys Scouts and other well-wishers.
A police escort speeds the bus caravan of Badger Honor Flight veterans to the memorial during the one-day trip.
Each veteran has a guardian, with daughters and sons coming along to share the experience with their parent.
U.S. Army veteran Robert Crosby from Waterloo brought his son Jason. Crosby was a pharmacist in the medical corp during 1965-67 in Texas.
“I am very proud of my service and it was a great thing to do,” Crosby said.
Crosby said it was a highlight to spend the day with Jason, who says he’s gained perspective into his dad’s past.
“He’s told me a lot more stories about being in the military today then I’ve heard before, not just of his service, but people he served with, and family members who served, that reflects on our family history,” Jason said. “That has been pretty cool.”
Dan Zell, a U.S. Navy veteran from DeForest, came with his son Casey. The two sat down at the Arlington National Cemetery to talk. Zell had four tours in Vietnam but Casey said his dad hasn’t told him much about the experience.
“Things that I’ve seen and done, I don’t discuss with my family,” Zell said. “It is depressing and it hurts but the benefit for me to come on this trip is that I am going to address some things in my past.”
To remember and honor
There’s veterans from the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force but there’s no division between military branches on the Badger Honor Flight as they share stories and socialize with one another.
Jerome Witherill, of Sun Prairie, was in the Marine Corps from 1956-63 and was involved in the invasion of Beirut during the Lebanon Crisis. He was the bodyguard to the admiral who was in command of the whole operations.
“We went into Lebanon and Beirut, invaded it and then occupied it,” Witherill said. “We went up in the mountains trying to get the warring parties, not to war, that was our job, so after four months they decided not to fight anymore.”
Witherill said the best part of the Badger Honor Flight is the connection he made with other veterans and the help from volunteers.
“The highlight of the Badger Honor Flight has been the people,” Witherill said.
For other veterans, the memorials, Washington D.C. landmarks and the connections to their military life was a draw.
U.S. Air Force veteran Steven “Shovel” Hovel served in Vietnam and was interested in seeing the Pentagon.
“When I was in Vietnam we would send photos three times a day to the Pentagon and get the OK to bomb the targets the next day,” said Hovel, a Lodi resident.
The Badger Honor Flight has its celebratory moments, with cheering crowds, hugs, but there were also solemn times.
Hovel, like many others, on the flight, had a mission to honor those who died, and now have their names on the Vietnam Veteran Memorial-the two 200-feet-long walls contain more than 58,000 names. Just like other Vietnam veterans, Hovel carefully placed a white piece of paper over the name and used a pencil to create an etching that he could bring home.
U.S. Navy veteran Ray Crary, of the Town of Westpoint, also took an etching for a family friend who’s loved one died in the Vietnam War.
Crary who served 1968-72 as a radar man on the USS Forrestal, coming onboard a year after a fire broke out on the aircraft carrier after a rocket from its jet fighters accidentally launched, killing 134 servicemen and injuring hundreds.
A welcome home
Emotions run high during parts of the Badger Honor Flight, especially at mail call on the return flight. Veterans receive notes and letters from family, friends, and others thanking for their service.
Sun Prairie resident Ron Gernetzke, was in the U.S. Army in Vietnam from 1967-68 as a clerk typist.
“The mail call was one of the highlights of the trip,” Gernetzke said. “I received letters from students from four different schools and I sent thank you notes to each student, which included a picture of me in Vietnam, and also on the Badger Honor Flight.”
As the plane touched back down at the Dane County Regional airport more than 14 hours after it first took off, hundreds of people filled the lobby carrying banners, welcome home signs. A band played U.S. military anthems, and an honor guard from local American Legions presented the colors.
Robert Overbaugh, who served in the U.S. Army-Korean War as a radio operator in Japan 1951 until Armistice was signed, was one of the first who was individually escorted down the long line, as he shook hands and got hugs.
“There were hundreds of people and everyone clapped and yelled and cheered it was a lot of fun and was quite an honor,” said Overbaugh, a Waunakee resident.
Duane Clemens, a Dane resident, who served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in a searchlight battalion said the welcome home made up for the less than welcoming experience when returning home in 1967.
He said he appreciates the Badger Honor Flight, just like other veterans.
“People should respect veterans for what they’ve done for this country,” Clemens said. “Now, when I wear my Vietnam Veterans hat, I get a ‘thank you’ for my service and a handshake.”