Now landing: The Badger Honor Flight

Dateline: Saturday, Nov. 11, 2011, 9:30 p.m., Dane County Airport

I am sandwiched between two vets on a plane. To my right, Elmer Fisk (“74 days away from being 90 years old”) fidgets with his carry-on items, anxious to deplane, wondering what the holdup is. He had arrived at the airport at 4 a.m., and he’s already flown to D.C. and back. He’s had one of the longest days in over 50 years and now he’s anxious about connecting with the adult son scheduled to pick him up. He worries about being late. The exhilaration of the day is beginning to wane and fatigue is setting in, but he doesn’t complain, because how could anyone complain at the end of a day like the one he’s been given? It would feel un-American.

“The way everything went today,” he tells me, “the way they took care of us, and all the people everywhere thanking us, well, if I was 50 years younger, I’d think I owed it to the American people to sign on for another stint. They all made me feel like maybe I did do something right in my life, like maybe it did count.”

On my right, George worries that his brother’s medical condition is worsening – Clem was a little overwhelmed and so he was wheelchaired off the flight by attending medical personnel shortly after landing. The two brothers had looked forward to experiencing the day together, and they did, but now only George remains on the plane. He has the scarlet trace of a kiss on his cheek planted there by a “USO girl,” a souvenir from the party held in the vets’ honor at the Washington, D.C., airport to send the World War II heroes back to Madison.

On board with George (L) and Elmer (by window). A vet wears a kiss from a cheeky girl in D.C.

He tries to fill the extra minutes with jokes, and tells me that the airline that offered to fly bags for free should be charged with false advertising – his friend booked a flight and they charged his wife to fly after all. (This does crack me and Elmer up, though Elmer has great respect and love for his own wife of 64 years, Angeline – so much so that when a USO girl grabbed him for a dance in Washington, and kissed his cheek uninvited, he was so worried about discovery that he rushed to the bathroom to wash off the telltale lipstick and told all the other approaching cheeky girls that he was already spoken for.)

What the boys don’t know

Sandwiched between them, it is tempting to try and calm their anxieties, because I’ve been let in on a secret – that the late-evening event yet to come is what the day has been all about all along. It’s the icing on the cake that will make this a party they will never forget. “My boys,” as I affectionately think of both of them by now, are about to step into more limelight than either has ever experienced. For once, military “shock and awe” will be just that.

Homecoming. Elmer with family. About half of the people waiting for homecoming.

The delay is part of a staged homecoming, so that every World War II vet who steps off that plane can fully enjoy a brass-band welcome home. They’ll be saluted to by military personnel from all branches, escorted by Boy Scouts, and then presented to walk down a runway framed by friends, family, and community – literally thousands of people waving flags, holding signs, and calling out their names, while the band plays “On, Wisconsin!” and also patriotic songs.

The Badger Honor Flight is home.

The greeting in D.C. included a band.

And you’d have to be one hardhearted SOB not to shed a tear as you watch these World War II veterans in their 80s and 90s overcome with emotion as they stand at the top of the escalator, trying to take in the scene below, trying to believe their eyes.

Love at first handshake

Personally, I fell in love with Elmer within minutes of meeting him early this morning. (I was already smitten with George from a previous meeting and interview.) I was assigned to be Elmer’s flight “guardian,” though unlike many of the other vets who have felt the effects of living a very long life, Elmer didn’t need assistance or oversight. He walks a couple miles a day and he’s stoic about pain and fatigue. During World War II, he worked stateside for the Army Airborne troop, training war scout dogs and, beyond the canine division, training glider pilots. He’s stayed lean and fit all his life.

His son Mark tells me that he hasn’t talked much about his military experiences in the past, but we all expect that to change today (and it does). World War II will be the conversational hook as men approach each other with the line “Who’d you serve with?” or “Where were you stationed?” Later, after they are more comfortable with each other, the conversation will go to the heart of the matter: “What battles did you survive, and how many of your troop died?”

During the day, for example, I learn that Elmer, who reported for basic training on July 3, 1944, was scheduled to fight in the Battle of the Bulge alongside his friends, but was one of five men pulled out of the group just before deployment for additional training. He chokes up when he remembers the buddies who never returned.

“Thank you for your service”

Approaching the airport this morning, the first thing I saw was the Middleton Fire Department’s outdoor display of the flag on the ladder truck (I think that’s what I saw, though I’m bleary-eyed at that time of the night/morning). Inside the airport was controlled chaos as we checked in amid military salutes, Boy Scouts, volunteers carrying around coffee and doughnuts, picture taking before a flag, and the general meeting up of veterans, guardians, and staff, with limited family sendoff. American Family Singers led us in the National Anthem. A priest offered a blessing for the flight, and we prayed together for those who were not able to make the flight. Staff made announcements. There was an overriding feeling of great expectation, and we were escorted to security by the Madison Fire Department’s Pipe and Drum Corps playing bagpipes and drums. GREAT! I hooked up with colleagues I knew going on the flight – Sly and Dennis and Casey and Steve – and said quick hellos to vets already interviewed for blogs.

I don’t have the space to tell all that happened – I’m putting that in a book I’m making for Elmer and George as a surprise (don’t tell them) – but know that we were fed breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and here are just a few of the highlights of the activities:

  1. Party when we arrived at the Washington, D.C., airport. We were greeted in the jetway by military personnel of most of the services. That’s AFTER the water cannon sprayed the airplane in tribute. The welcome included a band, balloons, banners, and people waiting to say “thank you for your service” and shake hands – military and civilians (including schoolchildren) snaking down the entire corridor of the gates. This is also where the veterans connected with D.C.-area guardians provided by the UW Alumni Association. At this point, Elmer was officially handed off to Melissa Ficek, a UW-Madison graduate who volunteered with her twin sister, Cindy, to be a guardian. With the UW’s help, more seats can be freed up on the outbound plane for vets by matching them with help already in D.C. This freed me to interview and photograph many more vets, though I still shadowed Elmer (and George) all day.
    Arlington, waiting for the changing of the guard at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier.

  2. Bus to Arlington National Cemetery to witness the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Soldiers assembled on a hillside by the airport to salute the buses as we pulled out, complete with a full police escort (which we had all day long, at every troop transport). The two women vets opted instead to visit the Women’s Memorial while we were at Arlington.
  3. Arlington. A moving ceremony that changed out not only the guard, but also the wreath. We were lucky to get to see both in one viewing, and our guys and gals saluted and many men tried to rise out of their wheelchairs when the call to present arms was made.
    Marine Corps War Memorial. World War II Memorial pavilion.

  4. Lunch at the Marine Corps War Memorial. Also, a photo of the entire group of vets was taken.
  5. World War II Memorial. Perhaps the most thrilling experience for the vets was the unexpected treat of being greeted by Sen. Bob Dole and wife Elizabeth, with a chance to sit down and talk to him and have a photo taken with him in the outside entryway. Many vets had never seen the memorial, and within minutes of arrival, it was easy to figure out where the Wisconsin statuary was by the sea of red jackets (vets) and blue (guardians) and congregated in front of it. This is where the conversations between vets (and between vets and guardians) started drilling down.
    Elmer talking to his guardian at the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

  6. Korea, Lincoln, and Vietnam Wall memorials. The Korean War Veterans Memorial wall is amazing in that the ghosts of the soldiers etched on it reach out, but at the same time, when it is photographed, the people walking past seem to be the ghosts. Many of the veterans remain very bitter about the treatment the returning Vietnam vets received from their country, and it is their fondest wish, they said, that those vets get the chance to take a trip to see the wall, which shrouds all visitors with a deep sense of sorrow. The Badger Honor Flight expects to move on to the Korean conflict and then Vietnam vets, in that order, after the obligation to the World War II vets is fulfilled.
  7. Air Force Memorial. Wow. Elmer was walked out by the time we got here, so he opted to stay on the bus to rest, but wow. The sun had set and so the memorial was backlit. I’d never seen it before, the trio of towers arching high into the sky, but I got vertigo just trying to see the tops. Wow. I have a veteran AF daughter and favorite uncle, and this tribute to their service moved me deeply.
  8. Washington, D.C., party – and I do mean party! An hour at the airport with a swing band, and all of the dressings of a USO party. The men were flirted with, kissed, danced with, and generally much fussed over by zoot suit dancers. It was humbling, tired as I was, to see the vets dancing in wheelchairs, suddenly spry as spring chicks. The last song was, fittingly, “Thanks for the Memories,” the old Bob Hope trademark. But this was hard for Elmer, too, because he had to say goodbye to his twins. Melissa had questioned him about his experience and genuinely listened to him the entire day. She cared, and he knew she cared, and he talked in a safe environment for him as he relived those years. Between the three of us, he was appropriately nagged to drink lots of water and eat and rest, but I think he lost his heart to Melissa. The sisters presented him with a pin (one sneaked off while we were at a memorial to buy it) denoting the canine unit he served with, which choked him up a little as he pinned it on his cap. I think Melissa became his 11th child on that trip, as she treated him with all of the love and respect of a devoted daughter.
  9. Flight home. We were fed and then the vets were given a special treat that I can’t divulge, because it is a secret that the Badger Honor Flight holds close to its vest for future flights. All I can say is that it meant the world to these people, and it was another high point of the trip.
  10. Homecoming – the best part of the day. Writing this after the fact, I can report that I have never been as proud of living in Madison as I was when I saw the turnout for these veterans. Thousands of people filled the airport. Elmer was starting to tear up well before he came to the center of the reception, where his own family waited – and not just the son, but also his beautiful wife and his other children and grandchildren. They had a sign (a grandson made it) honoring his service unit. That DID move this stoic hero to tears, and all of us around him, too.
  11. If you want to see more pictures, or learn more about the flight, go to the website for the Badger Honor Flight. I’ll be making more than 200 photos available to them for posting, so check back often as they sort through their own photos and posting, too.

If you know any World War II vets who would like to go on the April Badger Honor Flight, get them signed up NOW! There is no cost to the veterans. If you’d like to be a guardian, the cost is $500 for the entire day, all inclusive. DON’T JUST ENVY ME – DO IT YOURSELF! It truly is a life-changing experience. But know there is a waiting list, so apply TODAY to get on that. If you’d like to make a donation (each flight costs about $90,000 to accommodate 100 vets with full medical support, etc.), every dollar is appreciated.

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