When David Brightwell got off the plane, he saw thousands of people lined up waiting to shake his and his fellow veterans’ hands.
As he proceeded down the rows of supporters, one in particular stood out.
“There was a little 6-year-old girl there,” the 88-year-old Waterloo man recalled. “And she looked up at me, and she didn’t even smile. But she stuck her hand under the chain and shook my hand. It really touched me.”
That was the scene at Veterans Airport of Southern Illinois in Marion last Tuesday night when members of the Red Bud Regional Hospital Healthy Circle group returned from an honor flight.
In addition to Brightwell, Waterloo’s John Lenhardt made the trip.
The expedition happened after Healthy Circle adviser Julie Hudson took members of the group to the Illinois National Guard Armory in Sparta for a tour.
One of the men who works at the armory, Dane Patterson, is also active in the Veterans Honor Flight of Southern Illinois and encouraged Hudson to have some seniors go.
That organization is one of the nearby branches of the nonprofit Honor Flight Network, which allows veterans to visit war memorials and similar landmarks for free.
This marked the fifth honor flight for the Southern Illinois chapter and the first one the Healthy Circle has been on.
The latter group is focused on improving life for those over age 50.
When presented with the opportunity to take some of those people on an honor flight, Hudson sprang in to action.
She assisted veterans with applications and other paperwork, talked with grade schools about having students write letters to the veterans, planned the transportation and more.
“It’s just something I feel that (our veterans) deserve,” Hudson said. “They served this country in whatever capacity they served. It was really that simple.”
The Healthy Circle veterans were among dozens who went on the trip, which was sponsored in large part by Marry Nell Chew of the Carbondale area. She donated $83,000 to help make the flight possible.
After departing from Marion at 5:30 a.m., the veterans went to Washington D.C. to visit numerous war memorials and similar attractions.
“Everything was just so great,” Lenhardt, 77, said. “I was lucky to have been there to Washington D.C. three times before, but it was the first time for me to see the World War II museum, which they did a good job with. It was huge.”
“It was a nice trip,” Brightwell agreed. “We went all over Washington D.C. I had been there several times before, and I saw a lot of things I had seen before.”
After being drafted, Lenhardt served in the Air Force from 1963-1967. He worked in computer operations in a supply squadron and in processing photos of bomb sites.
“That was very interesting,” Lenhardt said.
He served overseas in Vietnam for six months.
After getting out of the military, Lenhardt worked for Missouri Union Pacific Railroad.
For his part, Brightwell served in the Army during the Korean War as a records keeper for an ammo dump.
He served for almost two years, including about a year in Innsbruck, Austria.
“I didn’t want to be away from home, but I enjoyed it,” Brightwell said of his service.
After his service, Brightwell, who was also drafted, worked at a General Motors Assembly plant as a claim supervisor.
Despite their different experiences in the military, both men said they appreciated the honor flight, particularly because of the people they met.
“I think being with the other people who were involved was my favorite part,” Brightwell explained. “I enjoyed seeing all the monuments and everything, but I enjoyed the people.”
“It was great,” Lenhardt concurred. “The camaraderie and the discussion with other veterans was just so great. And (Veterans Honor Flight) handled everything just superbly.”
The fun was not over for the veterans when they got back to Illinois, however, as thousands of people came to the airport in Marion to welcome them home with a party.
There were food trucks and live music. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, first responders, active members of the military, church organizations and more were all present to honor the veterans.
In addition to Chew, the American Legion, VFW and Red Bud High School National Honor Society contributed money to help pay the festivities.
The Veterans Honor Flight of Southern Illinois also donated $35,000 from a golf fundraiser.
Brightwell said he appreciated all the support.
“It made me feel proud,” he said. “I was glad I served my country.
Lenhardt said it was in sharp contrast to his reception when he returned to Waterloo from Vietnam.
“I thought I’d be seeing old friends or whatever, but it was just like nobody cared about you,” he recalled. “It’s one of the worst things to come home to.”
This showing helped ease the pain of that memory.
“It does something for you that you never expected to see,” Lenhardt said.
Hudson said she could see the impact on the veterans, including when several of them cried after seeing the support.
“You can say it’s wonderful, it’s fantastic, it’s heartwarming, it’s all of these things, but to be on that flight with them and to see how the people treated them, it’s hard to talk about,” she said as she choked back tears. “It’s really emotional. No words can describe it.”