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Charles City veterans visit Washington with Honor Flight

Charles City veterans visit Washington with Honor Flight
“This is the big draw. The wall,” said Kendall Kelleher at the Vietnam Memorial.




By Travis Fischer,

It was a big day for a group of Charles City area veterans as more than a half-dozen former soldiers took a day trip to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday this week as part of the Sullivan Hartogh Davis Cedar Valley Honor Flight.

They joined a group of roughly 90 veterans from the Waterloo region for what is, for many of them, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore the nation’s capital and visit the numerous monuments with their fellow servicemen.

The day began before sunrise as the veterans and their guardians filed into Waterloo Regional Airport to get checked in and enjoy some coffee and donuts before their flight.

“I’m excited,” said Kendall Kelleher. “I’ve never been there.”

Kelleher served in the Navy from 1973-77. His first duty was evacuating refugees in the Philippians. Today he works as an assembler at Bossard in Cedar Falls.

The Kelleher family has a long history of military service and Kendall was happy to be able to go on the honor flight alongside his brother, Harold Kelleher, who served in the Air Force and now lives in Nashua.

Landing at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, the veterans were greeted at the gate and sorted out onto their buses for the ride into Washington.

The first stop of the day was the World War II Memorial, where the veterans were welcomed by retired Brig. Gen. David Cole, a Waterloo native who now lives in Washington and has come out to welcome every honor flight that Cedar Valley Honor Flight has launched.

“I get very emotional when I come down here and see the veterans and the look in their eyes,” said Cole.

The veterans were also welcomed by the 7th grade students of South County Middle School in Lorton, Virginia, who lined up with signs and cheered them through the entrance of the memorial.

“It’s awesome,” said Ed Foxen, admiring the fountains and stonework of the WWII Memorial. “Everything is awesome around here.”

Foxen served in the Army from 1962-68 and was deployed to Korea as a gunner, operating an 8-inch cannon near the DMZ. He was excited to see the sights of Washington, in particular the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

Hopping back on the bus for a quick lunch and a ride to the other side of the Reflecting Pool, the group arrived at the Lincoln Memorial and split up to explore the parks and memorials in the surrounding area.

“It’s nice,” said James Ruzicka of the Lincoln Memorial. “A lot of things are bigger than what I thought they were. The Lincoln Memorial is huge.”

Ruzicka served in the Army from 1965-67 as a member of the signal corp serving in Thailand along with two months in Vietnam. After the Army, he returned to Iowa to farm and now enjoys his retirement in Marble Rock.

With most of the honor flight attendees being of that generation, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was of special significance to many of the veterans in the group.

“This is the big draw. The wall,” said Kelleher.

Some of the veterans on the trip were eager to examine the wall, searching for the names of friends and family etched into the stone monument.

For others, the thought of finding the names of fallen comrades was too painful. Stirring powerful emotions, they instead opted to walk along the wall in quiet contemplation.

The veterans spent about two hours roaming the parks and monuments, enjoying the nice weather of the afternoon and taking in the sights.

“This is great,” said Sherron Ploeger, who was drafted into the Army in 1964 and served until 1966, stationed in Germany where he ended up being a mail man. “Everybody should see it, whether they’re a veteran or not.”

Getting back on the buses, the veterans were able to rest their feet for a while as the drivers took them through a tour of the capital, pointing out various landmarks and famous buildings along Constitution Avenue.

As much as the veterans were impressed by the historical monuments in Washington, they were equally taken in by the deftness of their bus drivers. Navigating the busy streets of downtown Washington, the drivers coordinated with each other to maneuver through the traffic by employing a tactic where the lead bus would position itself to block off an intersection, allowing the other two buses to turn without getting separated.

“It was very interesting,” said Steven Clay. “We didn’t run over anybody or vice versa.”

Clay was in the Navy in 1968-69, serving on the USS Coral Sea running the ship’s evaporators, which supplied the crew with fresh water. This was Clay’s second time in Washington, but his first time as part of an honor flight. He said he was impressed with how much the organization was able to pack into the trip.

“They have it laid out real nice,” said Clay. “It’s a lot to put into one day.”

Making their way back into Virginia, the group stopped at the Military Women’s Memorial for a tour through the museum dedicated to the history of women in service before heading into Arlington National Cemetery.

Lining up at the cemetery’s amphitheater, the honor flight silently observed the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

“I was really impressed with it,” said Daryl Barnett. “You can’t believe what those guys must go through to be on that honor guard.”

Barnett served in the Army from 1967-70, deployed to Vietnam as a helicopter mechanic. He had been to Washington, once before, many years ago, but had never experienced a tour like the honor flight provided.

“I thought they did one fantastic job,” said Barnett. “Some of it got a little close, but I thoroughly enjoyed it all.”

Heading back into Washington, the group stopped at West Potomac Park for a sack dinner before roaming the area to take in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.

“I like FDR, so this is pretty neat,” said John Reveland. “He was the best president we ever had.”

Reveland was drafted into the Army in 1965, serving for two years, mostly as a communication specialist stationed in Germany. After his time in the Army, he spent another six years in the National Guard.

On the honor flight, Reveland had a happy reunion with a childhood friend, Wayne Nathan.

Nathan and Reveland were both part of the Charles City Class of ’63 and had lost touch over the decades.

“The last time I seen him was about 10 years ago and the time before that was about 40 years ago,” said Reveland.

After high school, Nathan moved to Waterloo for work and joined the Army in 1967 for a two-year term. Nathan toured Vietnam with the 4th Infantry, performing long-range recon patrols.

Reunited after so many years, the two men spent the trip catching up with each other as they took in the various sights.

“I’ve enjoyed this whole thing,” said Nathan.

As the end of the day neared, the group returned to the buses once again for another quick tour of the city as they made their way to the Air Force Memorial, where they gathered for a final round of group photos before it was time to return to the airport for their departing flight.

After boarding the plane, the flight crew had one final surprise for the veterans as they left the city, lighting the cabin in blue and playing “God Bless The U.S.A.” over the PA system as they ascended into the sky.

Touching back down in Waterloo late into the night, the returning veterans were met by a crowd of friends, family, first responders, and more to welcome them home after their long day. Local musicians “The Cedar Valley Big Band” played patriotic themes as the veterans were paraded through the crowd of cheering supporters, bringing an emotional end to an unforgettable day.

“I broke down,” said Barnett, who was overwhelmed by the reception they received coming into the airport.

The reception marked the end of Cedar Valley Honor Flight’s 29th trip to Washington.

Organizing the event takes the yearlong efforts of dozens of volunteers organizing the flights, food, buses, and schedules to make sure the trip runs smoothly.

“It was good,” said executive board member Linda Bergmann. “We had a few changes, but when you build this itinerary and plan the day you have to be flexible.”

Whatever logistic challenges the honor flight faced during the trip went unnoticed by the veterans, who returned home having thoroughly enjoyed the unique experience of touring the capitol with their peers.

“It’s a lot to see in one day, but we did it,” said Kelleher.

“We saw a lot of stuff,” said Ruzicka. “It might be miniscule for people, but it was a big deal for a guy like me.”

“With the crowd I was with, it’s totally different than when you’re with your family,” said Clay. “They’re a different family.”

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