By Brandi Makuski
I hadn’t fully considered what it meant when we received word that the City-Times had been chosen to fill the seat reserved for print media on the September 8th Honor Flight. The preceding several weeks had been filled with a great deal of reflection on the many layers of the implications surrounding our chance to go on this once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Without understanding what the trip really meant, we were excited about the obvious business angle- look how far we’ve come as a media outlet. Being chosen by the Never Forgotten Honor Flight, based in Wausau and serving 12 counties throughout the state, to accompany and record the events that transpired during the day spent in Washington, D.C., no doubt is some nod of acknowledgement to our credibility in the news world. In an industry where the little guy is dominated by chain newspaper corporations and sensationalized headlines, it’s nice to be taken seriously.
But compared to the weight of that day, our business concerns now seem quite petty and selfish.
Throughout the actual day, I was focused on my camera and the logistics of taking good photos. A few times I had a chance to marvel at the scenery, the crazy driving conditions of Washington, D.C., and the sheer specter of the amount of marble and detail work put into our nation’s moments. I even ran into a few familiar faces on the flight: Cecil Coats, who served during WWII, is currently a member of the Village of Whiting Board. And there was Portage County Circuit Judge Tom Eagon who was a guardian from his father Bud, also a WWII veteran. And I spent time with Tom Dreier and his “battle buddy” for the day- WWII veteran and family member Richard Wanserski of Stevens Point. Tom is the husband of County Executive Patty Dreier, and I’ve known both for a number of years from my involvement with the Izaak Walton League.
“It’ll be the trip of a lifetime you’ll never forget,” seemed to be the catch-all advice everyone gave me prior to the trip. After hearing it so many times it became cloying, without realizing- despite coming from a military family and my own time in the army- how accurate but totally underrated this advice was.
I had a chance to enjoy some of monuments I’d not seen since a Pacelli band trip to the nation’s capital more than 20 years ago, and some of the newer memorials built since. But for 16 hours it was all I could do to keep up with these veterans- all of whom had at least 50 years on me- moving from place to place. Even those with in wheelchairs had the constitution and vibrancy of much younger men and took in the sights with either the awe of a young child or the visible pain of a fresh wound.
They received a hero’s welcome everywhere they went with cheers, ceremonial bands, “Thank You” and “Welcome” signs- even random strangers greeted these men with handshakes and hugs. Many of the veterans welcomed the cheers, but others dismissed them, insisting they weren’t heroes, only men who did what they believed was their duty many years ago.
When we finally landed at the Central Wisconsin Airport I was physically exhausted and emotionally drained, and I knew to expect a crowd welcoming the veteran’s home from their trip. What I didn’t expect was the sheer number of people inside the airport- well over 1,500 people including family members and friends, several area fraternal organizations and regular folks with no direct connection to the men and women on the flight. People these veterans had never met; people who themselves may never serve a day in combat boots all crammed into CWA with signs and flags, all cheering for veterans who fought enemies on foreign land so many years ago.
“Oh my God- we didn’t get this kind of welcome home when I came back,” said Korean War Veteran David Shopinski of Stevens Point, as he wiped his eyes. “This is unbelievable.”
When the night was over and I returned to my car in the CWA parking lot, the pain in my feet and legs disappeared as I dissolved into tears like a small child. These men and women- some who were drafted, others who volunteered- gave up their personal freedom, their families and all sense of comfort so people like me could raise children in a free country. So people like you could freely read the news and post freely on Facebook. And despite how the public did or did not welcome home soldiers returning from overseas in the past, now everybody knows at least something about the sacrifice these men and women made then and continue to make today.
As I wrote at the beginning of this editorial, I hadn’t fully considered the implications of this trip. And I still haven’t. I likely won’t for many months. As a journalist it can sometimes be difficult to separate your emotions from the event you’re covering; the emotions and experiences of this day can so easily be cheapened with words, but to best describe what I experienced, I have to borrow from Sir William Shakespeare:
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
For the City-Times photo album of the Honor Flight trip, click here.