By the Lincoln Sentinel
Four local veterans had the opportunity to visit the nation’s capital last month thanks to the North Central Kansas Honor Flight organization, a press release from Honor Flight officials said.
In its sixth year, the NCK Honor Flight gives a selected group of veterans a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., free of charge.
The trip not only honors veterans for their service and sacrifices, but also provides closure by giving them time to visit and reflect at their memorials.
Local Korean War veterans Gerald Walter, Don Panzer and Bill Yager, and Vietnam War veteran James Gabelmann, all of Lincoln, were among the 32 military men escorted to Washington, D.C. For Walter, the June 20-22 trip was made even more meaningful because he had the opportunity to share it with his son, Derek, also of Lincoln.
While the NCK Honor Flight group is part of the National Honor Flight Network, the local organization is unique in that it is recognized by the Concordia-USD 333 School District as an official activity, giving students the opportunity to honor veterans.
Concordia high school students accompany certain veterans on the flight and serve as guardians throughout the trip, while younger students also take part by providing letters and decorating snack bags for veterans.
During the first day of the trip, the group traveled to Kansas City, Mo., to catch the flight. Once they arrived at Reagan National Airport, the veterans received a hero’s welcome from the entire crowd of passengers and volunteers.
Another special guest who greeted the group was United States Army Reserve Brigadier General Aaron Walter, Gerald Walter’s nephew.
The group quickly hit the ground running the first day with stops at the Pentagon and Air Force memorials followed by a steak dinner
The veterans started the second, and longest, day of their trip with a visit to the World War II Memorial.
During the stop, United States Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, met with the group and thanked the veterans for their service. After swapping stories with Sen. Moran, the group headed to the Lincoln, Vietnam and Korean memorials.
That afternoon, the group toured the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and then made a short visit to the Marine Corps War Memorial before heading to Arlington National Cemetery.
At the cemetery, veterans witnessed the Changing of the Guard ceremony as well as a wreath ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. As the ceremony ended, NCK Honor Flight representatives also laid a wreath at the memorial.
During the final day of the trip, Sen. Moran’s staff arranged a tour of the U.S. Capitol Building.
Once they arrived, the veterans were welcomed by Congressman Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, who visited with the group as they walked up the hill. Following a short movie about the Capitol’s history, the group toured the building. The final stop on the trip was the United States Navy Memorial.
The Honor Flight Network program was conceived by Earl Morse, a physician’s assistant and retired Air Force captain, who wanted to honor the veterans he cared for at an Ohio clinic.
After the World War II Memorial was completed in 2004, it quickly became a popular subject among his veteran patients. Morse repeatedly asked his patients if they would ever travel out to visit their memorial. For most, the reality was they simply didn’t have the money or were not physically able to make the journey on their own.
In December 2004, Morse asked one of his World War II veteran patients if he could personally fly him to Washington, D.C., free of charge, to visit his memorial. The veteran broke down and cried, explaining that, at his age, he would probably never get to see his memorial otherwise, and graciously accepted the offer.
A week later, Morse posed the same question to a second World War II veteran. He also accepted the offer. It didn’t take long for Morse to realize there were many other veterans who would have the same reaction. Eventually, the Honor Flight program was born.
Today, the nonprofit program’s mission is to transport America’s veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifices.
The network currently has 130 hubs in 44 states. Since its inception in 2005, approximately 159,703 veterans have flown to the nation’s capital – including 20,886 veterans in 2015 alone.