The following post is a reporter’s notebook featuring personal reflections on the trip.
WASHINGTON, D.C. (KELO) — It’s been almost a week since I returned from Midwest Honor Flight and I wanted to share a little about my experience.
I knew this assignment was going to be impactful, but I didn’t quite realize how incredible it would be.
The night before the flight, all the veterans, guardians, volunteers and family got together for a banquet. I had no idea that night that the people I would meet over the next 30 or so hours would form such a special bond with me.
This was a unique flight – it was all Vietnam veterans.
I’ll admit, I wasn’t fully aware of the disappointing way our country treated these men and women. I knew about the protests and the anti-war movement, but taking it from the pages of a textbook or documentary was much different than hearing it first-hand.
I grew up predominantly in the post 9/11 era, when America supported our veterans. This was a different time. One gentleman told me at dinner that he was spat on when he arrived back from war. I can’t even imagine that happening today.
Many of the men didn’t have a choice – they were drafted to go to Vietnam.
That’s why this Honor Flight was so important. It was the welcome home that they deserved.
From the arrival at Washington Reagan National Airport, to walking into the World War II memorial and arriving back in Sioux Falls – these men were treated to the hero’s welcome they deserved.
My job on this flight was also unique. KELOLAND Media Group goes on almost every Honor Flight. Normally, a reporter goes and comes back with several TV stories. For me, we tried a new approach: to live blog the entire day. It allowed family members and the community to watch in real-time what was happening in Washington, D.C.
With trying to multitask so much, I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to stop, breathe and realize what was happening in front of me.
However, talking to these veterans and hearing these stories grounded me.
The hardest moment for me came at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I had been there several times before, but this was different. I followed a group of gentlemen from Gregory County and Daniel M. Weber.
Donald Fenenga told me there was one name he was looking for. I remembered hearing there was an app, so I quickly downloaded it on my phone and searched for the name.
I didn’t realize until we got there it was Donald’s cousin, Terry. The gravity of the situation hit me then.
This was someone’s cousin, someone’s husband, someone’s child.
On the flight home, there was a lot of crying, storytelling and songs.
I sat next to bus captain Kristi Brantsen. She said something that stuck with me.
“The healing starts now,” she said.
Many of these men hadn’t talked about their experiences. They didn’t share their stories, until now.
As this week has gone on, I have had a lot of time to reflect on the trip. Several of the veterans have called me at work. I was talking with Ron Messenger, one of the 120 veterans aboard the flight about the trip.
We both agree a woman named Teresa summed up the trip the best. She was the charter flight coordinator with American Airlines.
To the veterans who talked to me: thank you for sharing your story and thank you so much for your service. Welcome home!
We have so many freedoms in the country because of the men and women who serve. For me, the freedom of the press is obviously important, and it’s thanks to every person aboard this flight and beyond.
For everyone reading the coverage this week, you can help Midwest Honor Flight. These trips are not cheap and there is a long waiting list of veterans. You can go as a guardian and experience this too first-hand.
A little personal note… I will have a lot more to say after I collect my thoughts and get a little sleep, but I can easily say today was one of the best days of my life. What an honor it was to fly with 120 of our nation’s heroes. I learned so much about life, patriotism and humanity today. It was much more powerful than I anticipated and I am so grateful for this opportunity. Thank you to KELO management and Midwest Honor Flight for the opportunity. These heroes got the long overdue welcome home they deserved many decades ago. ✈️