WASHINGTON — As they exited their plane in Washington, D.C., veterans from North Dakota and Minnesota were greeted by a throng of well-wishers who applauded, held welcome signs and reached out to shake their hands.
The people who lined the walkway in the gate area were not family or friends; they were simply fellow Americans with a message to deliver. “Welcome to Washington” or “Thank you for your service,” many of them said as the vets passed by. A group of young band students from a local school brightened the festive mood with patriotic music when members of the Veterans Honor Flight of North Dakota and Minnesota arrived.
Several vets said later they were surprised and touched by the reception.
“It was pretty nice,” said Jack Gaddie, 91, of East Grand Forks, who served in the U.S. Army at the end of World War II and the start of the Korean War.
“To be welcomed by people with ‘Welcome Vets of North Dakota and Minnesota’ signs and applause, it was quite a reception. It brought tears to my eyes,” Gaddie said.
“You don’t realize — until you see something like that — that people do care.”
Gaddie was among the 85 veterans from North Dakota and Minnesota to participate in the latest Veterans Honor Flight, a nonprofit effort that takes veterans to see historic and military sites in Washington, D.C. The group took off Sunday morning from Fargo and returned Monday evening. While in Washington, they visited numerous sites and participated in a dinner and reception. And they all seemed touched by the reception they received at the airport.
Jim Riley, of Grand Forks, who served in the U.S. Air Force for nearly 21 years, was among those who were moved by the scene.
“When we were greeted at the airport," he said, "I almost cried.”
It wouldn’t be the last time in this two-day tour of war memorials and historic landmarks that emotions would rise, as veterans’ thoughts turned to personal memories of military service. And at the end of the trip Monday evening, it happened again: Hundreds gathered at Fargo’s Hector Airport to welcome the vets back with an honor guard, cheering, applause and more patriotic music.
Each spring and fall, the Veterans Honor Flight of North Dakota and Minnesota takes veterans, at no cost to them, to Washington. Top priority is given to World War II and Korean War veterans, as well as any veterans with a terminal diagnosis. The vets on this flight represented all branches of the U.S. military — Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard — each with his or her own story, but all knit together by a common thread: the desire to serve their country.
Most of the veterans served in the Korean War or during Korean War Era, 16 served in World War II and seven served in Vietnam. There was one woman in the group.
The group was accompanied by another 80 family escorts and a team of volunteer medical and support staff members who pushed wheelchairs and tended to equipment such as oxygen tanks — all to allow aging vets to see their memorials. They visited landmarks including the National Archives; the World War II, Korean, Vietnam and Iwo Jima memorials; the Lincoln Monument; and the President Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.
The group witnessed the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, an event that was “quite moving,” said Dean Trost, of McVille, N.D., who made the trip with his son, Michael Trost.
Their convoy of four buses wove easily through the city’s congested traffic with the aid of a police escort, lights flashing and sirens blaring.
“You’re going to see the traffic part like the Red Sea,” Dave Brunsvold, event organizer, told the group on the first day of touring.
And it did.
Vehicles moved to the streets’ outer edges and stopped.
At several points along the way, pedestrians stood and waved and applauded as the Honor Flight buses passed by. It was another heartfelt surprise for the vets inside.