There’s no lack of patriotism at Senior Star at Weber Place.
The senior community’s Veterans Club, launched last spring, now has roughly 40 members, according to volunteer Ginny Prihoda.
The group is recognized with a veterans' luncheon every month. Last week, as the group gathered to hear some news from the Department of Veterans Affairs, several of the veterans shared their experiences traveling to Washington, D.C., to view the National World War II Memorial.
The trips came courtesy of the Honor Flight Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing veterans — at no cost to them — to view their memorials in Washington, D.C. In recent years, the organization has made a push to bring as many World War II veterans as possibly to view their new memorial, which opened to the public in 2009.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s almost impossible to talk about it,” U.S. Air Force Veteran Wes Hardin said. “You have to experience it.”
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Mel Piech took his honor flight in 2009.
“I was given a circular [about the program] and I was chosen to go,” said Piech, who served in the South Pacific and was in Okinawa for the war’s end.
The trip is a whirlwind, beginning around 5 a.m. at Midway Airport, where veterans board a plane with their companion, assigned to them for the day to take care of anything they might need.
Tony Lewis, a Navy vet who served from 1943 to 1946, said his travel companion even took care of one of the most crucial parts of any sightseeing trip: taking the photos.
“She said, ‘Tony, stop taking pictures. I’ll take photos for you,’” Lewis said. “The worst experience of the Honor Flight was being [at the airport] at 5 o’clock in the morning. The rest of it was great.”
The experience is a moving one for many veterans.
“[It was] powerful,” Hardin said. “It brought back a lot of memories.”
Morris Reinke, an Army Air Force veteran, agreed.
“It’s a double-edged sword. It’s great to remember, but sometimes it’s very difficult," he said.
Hardin said he initially turned down offers to take the Honor Flight.
“I turned it down twice because I didn’t know what it was,” he said. “I wouldn’t have missed it if I’d have known what it was like.”
Reinke said he was able to fulfill a long-held dream on the trip.
“I flew for three years and never saw a B-29,” he said. “I always wanted to see one. I was all over the U.S., you’d think I would have run into one.”
But it wasn’t until the Honor Flight trip that he was able to see one “in person” during a stop at the National World War II Museum.
“I got to see the Enola Gay,” Reinke said of the bomber that was instrumental in bringing the war to a close. “To me, that was one of my lifelong dreams.”
Lewis, who took his Honor Flight in 2011, was able to impress the importance of his service on a new generation through the program.
On the return flight, Honor Flight guests have “mail call,” receiving letters from loved ones. In Lewis’ case, he also received notes from local students.
Lewis said he took the time to respond to every single letter.
“Every one of them I answered,” he said. “If I didn’t know the address, I sent it to the school.”
The Honor Flight program is a reminder that, more than 65 years after the end of the war, Americans still appreciate their sacrifices.
“They appreciate it now much more than when we came back,” said Helen Anderson, a Senior Star resident who served with the U.S. Navy WAVES (“Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service”) during the war.
Hardin said there was no fanfare for returning veterans after the war, and most just wanted to get on with their lives.
“You wanted to get out of that uniform,” he said. Today, organizations like the Honor Flight Network are recognizing veterans' service, even decades after the war's end.
For Reinke, the trip was a chance for his daughter to learn more about his service as an Army Air Force pilot. She signed on as his travel companion for the flight.
“I think she got an idea of what I was in,” he said. “It was good for both of us.”
Each flight is capped off with a hero’s welcome back at the airport.
“There were crowds of people,” Lewis said, from Scouting groups to firefighters to police officers. “You name it, they were there.”