Flight preparation: Behind-the-scenes prep for the Badger Honor Flight

I arrived early last Saturday, to CUNA’s headquarters, for the three-hour training session for World War II veterans and “guardians” who will be taking the Badger Honor Flight plane to Washington, D.C., on Nov. 12 to visit the war memorials at the National Mall and also at Arlington Cemetery. That’s a long sentence I just wrote, containing as many dreams and anxieties as words. The veterans and guardians alike anticipate a very long and emotional journey to a place 847 physical miles (and 70 emotional years) away.

The mood was appropriately somber at the first table I noticed, where John Rockhill waited with his father, Lauren, for the morning’s programming to begin. “This upcoming trip will be my first time on a plane, and I’m a little nervous about it,” Lauren admitted. Though he served in France and Ireland and was in the heart of the conflict overseas during World War II (he built barracks just ahead of invasions), he arrived there in the cargo hold of a medical transport, riding in a cavernous space cramped with stretchers and no window. This, then, will be his first commercial flight.

The Portage vet said he first heard about the Badger Honor Flight a couple years ago at a sponsored breakfast in Sauk City. He immediately signed up, but, he said, “I kinda gave up because of the long wait, but then six weeks ago, they called me and said I could go.”

Adult son John put down the required $500 guardian fee to join his father on such a momentous undertaking as flying to Washington, D.C., to see the World War II monument (the group’s primary goal), sandwiched between airport military welcomes, a chance to witness the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery, and the numerous other monument visits (including at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial). The day will begin at 4:30 a.m. and end at closer to 10 p.m., considering the time it will take for the vets to walk through the welcome home celebration planned at the Dane County airport that evening.

In past years, Lauren used to get together regularly with his military buddies from his unit, but in recent years, he said, “There aren’t enough of us left.”

John said he was surprised to learn recently that his father had signed up for the trip. “When I was growing up, he never talked about the war,” he said. “He still doesn’t.” As guardians were told, during their training session without the vets, this is a common experience; we should expect long-standing emotional dams to break down and the memories to spill out during the trip.

The Brothers Felsheim

Of five Felsheim brothers, all of whom served in the military, only two are now living. It was my great privilege to chat with Clem Felsheim, who served with the Navy, and his older brother George Felsheim, who served with the Merchant Marines. The mood at their table was celebratory, as the brothers are very excited at the prospect of traveling together to D.C. – especially since they’ll be accompanied there by “guardian” family members Christopher Gencheff, a physician, and Larry Felsheim, a Vietnam War veteran. All four were jovial, trading stories about shipmates, other troops, and pretty girls.

“It isn’t true that Navy soldiers have a girl in every port,” Clem quipped. “I know, because our ship never docked in every port….”

The brothers enrolled in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Merchant Marines (2). Clem and George talked about troop ships and gas rationing and, yes, those pretty girls. Remembered George, “When it was announced that the war was over, they anchored us on a ship by an island in the Pacific for a few weeks, trying to figure out what the military was going to do with us next!” On the way back to the states, he was disappointed to learn that gas rationing ended, because he still had unused tickets. “A guy called me selfish for that sentiment,” he remembered ruefully, “but I did a lot of inventive trading to get those tickets….”

What guardians need to know

Guardians are responsible for the safety of their vet. Most of the vets will be traveling with a family member (usually a grown child), but some others will be paired with strangers like me, who volunteered to accompany the group. UW alumni in the Washington, D.C., area step up to be matched at the airport there, too, for Madison-area vets to free up more seats for vets on the plane, which is chartered by the Badger Honor Flight with hopes of transporting 100 vets and support staff and volunteers per flight.

The Badger Honor Flights cost about $90,000 per trip, though each vet pays absolutely nothing to go. The balance of the money, after guardian fees of $500 each, is raised through fundraising. “If a business enterprise wants naming rights for a particular flight, we could gratefully arrange that,” board member (and group publicist) Steve Bartlett noted.

During the training, it was said many times, many ways – “Hey, this is the vets’ day, so put aside your own agenda and do what they want, when they want.” Don’t leave your vet. Don’t wander away together, either, from the group. Don’t be surprised by emotional outbursts. Don’t take everything you hear personally, as they become agitated or combative (as a few might). Be safe, safe, safe. Ask staff and helpful volunteers, like the ones below wearing yellow “Today I Helped a Hero” T-shirts, for help.

The group travels with five medical personnel, but safety begins (and hopefully concludes) with the guardian role. We were told to make sure vets drink lots of water. Make sure they can access bathrooms. Learn how to push a wheelchair (training on that, as well as handling someone on an escalator, was actually required at the meeting). Offer a wheelchair at the first sign of fatigue. LISTEN to your vet and, even more importantly, ANTICIPATE their needs. No alcohol, before flight, during trip, or after flight – until you get home (the vet doesn’t get the deciding vote on this).

“How about medical support for the guardians, by the end of the day?” one audience member shouted out. Remembering that some adult “children” are now 70 years old themselves, this likely was a serious inquiry.

“You might very well need it,” a flight board member agreed. “If you do, we’ll provide it. But the no alcohol rule still stands.”

While the guardians meet in an upstairs training room, the vets are together discussing how to get the most out of their day, and going over similar ground rules. Then the group comes back together for Q&A.

A taste of what may be to come

In the middle of the Q&A session, a veteran rises to his feet. “I’ll tell you what the government can do for us, and I’ll say it plain, right now,” he says, obviously overcome by emotion. “Uncle Sam can send us to France to let us kneel on the graves of our buddies. That’s where I want to go. Sure, I’ll go to these memorials, I’ll go. But where I really want to go is to France, where I left my buddies behind, and I want to kneel on their graves and pray. That’s what I want to do.”

He goes on, then, to shout out his remembrances of the invasion of Normandy. It was a horrific day that came to his mind and he is dead set on talking about it, right here, right now. He refuses to be calmed or quieted by those nearest him and offers to physically fight them if someone doesn’t want to hear his story. All in the room then remain respectfully quiet as he continues his tangential story about landing beyond the shores of France on June 1, 1944, in a storm that held them at sea for an extra five days. As a voyeur of sorts, listening to him, I was moved by his passion and his anger, all these years later … and also, I well understood his survivor’s guilt.

“We waited five days in a troop ship at sea, riding out an awful storm before landing on that beach, knowing what lay in store for us,” he cries out. “Knowing how may of us might die in the coming days. How do you think those men felt, waiting like that? We lost 10,000 men the first day! You can’t imagine. Then we came home to no recognition at all from our government.”

True, many of us can’t imagine the horror of watching our friends cut down by enemy bullets. But in that room of World War II veterans, he knew that many others could and did. It was a shared experience, one of many battles repeated many times on many fronts, and so he was in a safe place to remember – to unleash his fury and his discontent and his disbelief about all that he saw and experienced, and to finally express his tearful grief for what was taken from him. He was not unpatriotic in having those emotions – he is what is left of the best of the best American soldiers. And in that room, he found what he needed – a respectful and grateful audience for his personal sacrifices.

Preparing for the actual trip

I will be assigned my veteran this week (there was a snafu with that the day of the training), and then will be at the airport (way too early for decency) on Saturday, Nov. 12.

WTDY’s Sly Sylvester will also board the plane, along with Dennis O’Laughlin (many of you know these folks, probably) as VIP guests, along with Leo Endres, whom I haven’t yet met. Gen. Raymond A. Matera will be on hand to send off and welcome back the troop, and you’re invited to be at the airport for the emotional welcome back, too. Just grab a little flag or make a sign (if you wish) and report early (6:30 or so to get into position) for a night you’ll never forget. I know I never will, and I’ll be back in a couple weeks to report on the actual day and flight for you.

In the meantime….

This Saturday night I’ll be the keynote speaker at the “Jazzed for Hope” evening planned to benefit researchers for a cure for pancreatic cancer. Hope to see you there.

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