It was just before dawn when an aging man, nearly 90, and his grown daughter arrived at Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport. With the orange rays of dawn just beginning to flicker over the shores of Lake Michigan, it might seem like just another airport drop off. Yet, for Gene Knutson, my dad, and Jeanne Plunkett, my sister, this day would prove to be like no other.
As they approached the airport terminal that morning, they were met by an enthusiastic party of volunteers brimming with big smiles, holding brightly colored welcome signs, and waving American flags. These well-wishers escorted them into the terminal where a hot breakfast awaited them.
Gene Knutson, a Korean War veteran, soon discovered he was not alone. Around him were other veterans, most wearing decorated baseball caps that told the story of their service to our nation. Emblazoned on the brow of the caps were, “Navy,” “Marines,” “Air Force” and “Army.” Others wore hats that identified the various conflicts they played a role in including World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam.
Knutson and the others were being honored by volunteers from the Wisconsin Chapter of the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, an all-volunteer organization that began in 2008. Its mission is to help sponsor a one day, all expenses paid trip for veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the various war memorials.
Knutson’s daughter, Jeanne, served as her father’s Guardian for the trip (each veteran is assigned a travel assistant for the one-day journey).
“Going on the Honor Flight with my dad was and will always be a highlight in my life, ” she remembers. “It took some convincing from us three kids to get him to participate. For some reason I don’t think he felt worthy. He often said, “I was just doing what I signed up to do.”
The parent organization, the National Honor Flight Network, began in 2004 when Earl Morse, the son of a Korean and Viet Nam veteran was working as a physician’s assistant at the Veterans Administration in Ohio. One day he asked one of his patients, an aging World War II veteran, if he intended to visit the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. The elderly man said he would love to go, but simply could not afford the expenses involved. Morse, who was also a private pilot, offered to fly him there, free of charge. The man broke down and cried.
A week later, Morse asked another World War II veteran if he could do the same for him, and he too melted into tears. Soon Morse connected with a small businessman who had the vision to fly not just a few individuals on small planes, but to rent entire commercial airliners. Thus, the National Honor Flight Network was born.
By 2008 the Network had flown over 300 veterans to our nation’s capital. Today 130 Honor Flight networks spread across our nation have sent over 250,000 World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam (and those terminally ill younger veterans) to the various memorials.
A radio and communications technician in the Air Force, Knutson served stateside during much of the war. But his tour of duty eventually took him to Japan and finally Korea. He expressed a common sentiment felt by many of the aging veterans. They tend to share a sense of unworthiness, believing the recognition and celebration ought to go to those who were in combat during the conflict.
“Once the day began you could see the excitement in his eyes,” Jeanne recalls, “The Honor Flight left Milwaukee under a powerful spray from two fire engines. What a send-off!” From that dramatic farewell the excitement on board began to build. “During the flight to Washington, D.C. staff people on board talked about the things we would see that day.” Jeanne shared, “When we landed, we were greeted with so much fanfare.”
The first order of the day was to visit the various war memorials around the city.
“The Korean War Memorial was definitely the memorial that most interested him” said Jeanne. “It brought back lots of memories for him. Some were good and some were very sad. But through it all in him was developing a sense of pride in the part he played.”
The day was still far from over. On the flight home each veteran received a special gift.
“Every veteran was given a packet from children who came from different schools. They had written cards or drawn pictures to express, in their own way, their gratitude for this service to their country.”
“As they neared the Milwaukee airport for landing, the volunteers prepared the veterans for yet one more surprise. Every branch of the United States military was represented in full uniform, and military bands played as we slowly walked down a corridor of honor with people on either side waving what seemed like a thousand American flags.”
Incredibly, the best was still to come.
“At the very end of the procession we were greeted by our family. My dad’s eyes swelled with tears. I think at that moment he fully realized just how important his service was to our country. It was far more than just, ‘doing what I signed up to do.’ I could see on his face he was just so proud to be an American.”
Dignity. Recognition. Friendship. Healing. These four words capture the spirit of the Stars and Stripes Honor Network. The veteran travelers that day were told:
“As members of the United States Armed Forces, you have been both beacons and friends; courageous protectors and torch bearers. You have built a legacy of faith and family, optimism, service, selflessness and sacrifice.”
For Gene Knutson, and the other 250,000 veterans nationwide that have now taken the pilgrimage to Washington, it was a welcome home that was long overdue.
We give thanks this year because of veterans like Eugene “Gene” Knutson, and so many others. It is because of their service that we are blessed to live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
The Law Offices of Mark S. Knutson, S.C.