An American Airlines passenger jet approached the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
, making a smooth touchdown on the tarmac. As the plane taxied to the gate two massive fire engines employed their water cannons, creating an arc over the aircraft.
Kathy Kierce, a volunteer with the airport’s United Service Organizations, said the impressive welcome was a sign of respect to the Central Illinois World War II veterans who flew in courtesy of the Honor Flight Program on June 29.
The guests of honor were among the last passengers to exit the plane, beginning with a distinguished white-haired gentleman who had the look of astonishment on his face as dozens of passengers greeted him with applause and cheers while reaching out to shake his hand. The rest of the WWII veterans followed, eyes wide and full of appreciation.
The first Honor Flight took place in May 2005 when retired Air Force Capt. Earl Morse utilized his aviator skills to take a WWII veteran to the memorial honoring the Greatest Generation before he passed away. Today, the Honor Flight Program flies hundreds of veterans to the nation’s capital each month free of charge to see the World War II Memorial and various other monuments scattered throughout the National Capital Area.
After the veterans received a hero’s welcome in the terminal, they were escorted by volunteers or family members, called guardians, to a bus waiting to take them to the World War II Memorial. Dedicated on May 29, 2004, the World War II Memorial lies between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.
“It’s a very rewarding experience, there’s nothing like it,” said Christopher Carter, a guardian with the Central Illinois Honor Flight.
All of the retired Marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen said they were impressed with the memorial's design.
“It’s bigger than I thought it would be, and I love the layout,” said Harold Maynard Jr., who served in the Navy during WWII. “I’ve been to D.C. before, but that was years ago and the memorial wasn’t here.”
Their next stop included a brief photo opportunity in front of the Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue. Shortly thereafter, they visited the Korean War Memorial and Lincoln Memorial. While touring the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, several Honor Flight participants studied the names of the men and women immortalized in stone, running their fingers over the mirror-like black granite wall.
Following their visit to the National Mall, the group crossed into Virginia and stopped at the Marine Corps War Memorial. The monument depicts the second flag raising during the Battle of Iwo Jima and serves as an iconic image, synonymous with the Marine Corps.
The tour concluded at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery where veterans watched members of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Honor Guard perform the ceremonial changing of the guard.
“Those guys were pretty good, but Marines could’ve done it better,” said WWII Marine Gordon D. Bien jokingly.
The group also received a ride-by view of the Air Force Memorial while returning to the airport.
“I can’t find words to express the gratitude for the opportunity,” Bien said. “We all enjoyed a lifetime experience.”