Going in, I knew the Upper Peninsula Honor Flight would be a great experience. But there was no way for me to anticipate how awesome the trip actually would be.
It was a journey punctuated with laughter, touched by tears but mostly filled with enormous pride in being in the company of 79 geunine American heroes.
That is the number of World War II veterans from the U.P. who took the flight from Escanaba very early on the morning of April 26 to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II Memorial built in their honor along with a number of other national landmarks.
These gentlemen - and I use that word most deliberately - were a wonder to behold. They were enthusiastic and grateful, excited and humble, thrilled and awestruck.
It was a most wonderful day.
Accompanying these men, who ranged in age from 83 to 93, were guardians, people who paid $500 for the chance to help a veteran on this trip. Some guardians were relatives of the vet to whom they were assigned, but many were virtual strangers who became friends over the course of a long, busy, beautiful day.
The trip was my first chance to meet in person Gladstone's Barb Van Rooy, the woman who's the driving force of the group organizing the Honor Flight, this one being Mission 2. Mission 1 took place in September 2011 and Mission 3 will be taking place in September 2012.
Barb devotes incredible amounts of time and energy into planning the trip - which is of no cost to the veterans, by the way - and after being part of the journey, I can testify her work is impeccable. The best way I can describe it is to say the day was effortless for the veterans. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served with a minimum of fuss and were both delicious and nutritious. The buses brought the U.P. contingent everywhere right on schedule with the printed itinerary.
We landed in Baltimore 30 minutes ahead of schedule that morning and touched down back in Escanaba at 9:35 p.m., just five minutes later than the projected return time. Amazing.
Barb and the others who work on making the trip a reality are angels on earth.
What I will remember most about the U.P. Honor Flight are the wonderful veterans who were able to visit their WWII Memorial. They waited much longer than they should have for the memorial to be constructed so to see them be able to visit it at last was phenomenal.
As the day progressed, we visited Arlington National Cemetery and witnessed the changing of the guard. We toured the city by bus and were brought to the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial.
Every stop along the way, people saluted these WWII heroes, shaking hands and offering words of gratitude. It was not something these gentlemen expected but was certainly something they deserved.
One of my favorite moments of the day was at the Marine Corps Memorial. Our U.P. vets were looking around when they were spotted by a middle school group there on a field trip. The kids were from downstate Grand Rapids and were excited to discover these WWII vets were from Michigan, too.
"Tell me about your war experience" was heard again and again from the youngsters and with twinkling eyes, the vets told of their WWII days. Those were mutually delightful conversations.
All through this extraordinary trip, I knew something for certain: My dad was with me in spirit. He died 30 years ago, but in my walking beside some of his comrades in arms, he lives on, as do all those who served so bravely in that crucial time in our history.
As long as we honor their memory, they will be with us forever.
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her email address is rprusi@miningjournalnet.