Freedom Honor Flight: A Hero’s Welcome

Local veterans head to Washington D.C. to see the memorials built in their honor

You might think you already know how this story will go. Local veterans will board a flight, head to the nations capital, see the memorials built in their honor, then return home. It’s nothing new.

Here in La Crosse it’s been done 12 times before. But if you think that is all there is to this experience than you are truly missing what the honor in an honor flight is all about.

These men are about to experience it for themselves. La Crosse barbers Gerry Besl and Ken Garves are two of the 88 vets on board. 

“Kenny didn’t want to go without me and I didn’t want to go without him,” Besl said. “But we really don’t go steady.”

Their longtime friend Onalaska’s Everett Johnson is also making the trip. “I’m ready.”

And rounding out the foursome we followed  is DeSoto’s Robert Long. 

What’s clear from the start is that so many people want to make this day one they will never forget. It’s clear just how admired these service members are. It’s also clear how much fun it will be.

First time ever I got on a plane with no beer!”

Besides the veterans, this chartered plane is filled more than 60 guardians, medical personnel and organizers there to make sure the trip runs smoothly. And from the moment they touch down in Washington, the welcome wagon begins.

They are greeted by strangers at the airport, a police escort that guides them through the city and the people waiting to celebrate them at every stop.

“Welcome sir. What branch? Army. Hot damn another army man, alright.”

The World War Two memorial is up first. Everett and Gerry are both veterans of that war with two very different stories. Gerry was in the battle of the bulge. “I was captured as a POW and was there for 5 months as a prisoner.”

On the other hand Everett, standout baseball player had one of the most interesting war assignments ever. “They shipped me over to Hawaii and all I did over there was play ball. For 17 months!”

During the hour or so spent here there are somber moments, there are lighter moments, but the moments that mean the most are the ones where some just takes the time to say “thank you.”

This is organizer Mike Weissenberger’s 11th flight and he says these are the moments that never get old. “People they don’t even know come up to them and thank them for their service. And that’s been going on all day today, every stop we make and they are just overwhelmed by it that people really do care.”

The Korean Memorial is much smaller, much more intimate and much more personal for Korean vets Robert and Ken. “This is something. Boy.”

Standing here it’s hard to keep buried memories buried. “Just thinking. What they had to go through. unbelievable,” Garves said. “It’s so real.”

Weissenberger adds, “It’s just amazing their stories. And I always ask them ‘have you told that to your family?’ And the vast majority have never talked to them about their military experience.”

Throughout the day these veterans also travel to the memorials of Vietnam, the Air Force and Iwo Jima. Capped off by a stop at Arlington National Cemetery to the tomb of the unknown soldier and the guards that watch over it.

It is a whirlwind visit of sights to see, but it is not just about the the memorials. About the brothers made and brothers lost.

It’s about honoring these soldiers for their service. It’s about showing them just how grateful a nation we are for each and every one of them.

This may be a story you’ve seen before.  After all this is the 13th trip for our community, it’s nothing new. But hopefully it’s a story that can be told again and again and again.

Freedom Honor Flight: A Hero’s Welcome