Oak Hill veterans take virtual honor flight

Veterans residing at Oak Hill in Waterloo salute after the singing of “God Bless America.” (James “Tal” Moss photo)

Within moments of the program beginning, a hush fell over the room as chaplain Ron Chase was pushed up toward the front of the room in his wheelchair. 

When he arrived at the front, Chase pushed himself up with his arms, standing confidently. 

 “God bless America,” he intoned before praying and sitting down. 

Thus began the virtual honor flight Thursday at Oak Hill senior care center in Waterloo.

For a typical honor flight, the nonprofit Honor Flight Network takes veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials of their respective wars. This is free for veterans. 

But, for health reasons, not all veterans can make such a trip. Instead, some get the opportunity to attend virtual honor flight programs, which include a video showcasing the war memorials in D.C.

“The chances of (our resident veterans) being able to do (an honor flight) are slim to none,” Oak Hill activity director and volunteer coordinator Brook Cowell said. “I feel very honored that we are getting this opportunity to give this to our veterans and our residents as a whole and our community.”

Cowell got the idea for the event after Kim Johnson from Hospice of Southern Illinois approached her in April with the opportunity. 

Hospice of Southern Illinois provides a wide range of hospice services to 27 regional communities. Each year, the nonprofit chooses nursing homes to co-sponsor programs like the virtual honor flight.

This year, it selected Oak Hill. 

“Oak Hill is very community minded so we wanted to honor our Oak Hill veterans,” Johnson said. 

Currently, 25 veterans call Oak Hill home. Seventeen of those veterans, along with their loved ones, attended the ceremony.

“Oak Hill was the lucky nursing home to offer this opportunity to our veterans,” Cowell said. “So I said, ‘Yes. Definitely. Let’s honor our veterans in a really special way they most likely have never had the chance to experience by going on this honor flight.’”

The virtual honor flight began with a welcome and the singing of the National Anthem.

Then, after the Pledge of Allegiance, Waterloo Mayor Tom Smith and Oak Hill Administrator Kim Keckritz presented certificates to the veterans. 

Next, each branch of the military was honored by having its song played. When their respective song played, veterans of each branch who were able stood and saluted. 

Then came the virtual honor flight. 

The presentation included two videos, one showing the war memorials and one showing the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. It also featured pictures of the memorials and information about them.

“It was great,” said Oak Hill resident Bob Brown, who served in the Air Corps weather division during World War II. “I would like to be there in person if I could, but this is a good representation of it. The changing of the guard is tremendous. I can never get enough of it.”

Other residents said they also appreciated the program. 

“It was nice. It was all good,” said Larry Fults, who served in the Navy during World War II.  

To supplement  the virtual honor flight, Waterloo native and veteran Leroy Trost, who recently went on an actual honor flight, spoke about his experience.

“It’s a long day, but it’s a memorable day and something you’ll never forget,” said Trost, who entered the Air Force in 1952. 

Gerry Nungesser and Les Niemann of the Waterloo VFW then folded an American flag while Cowell read the meaning of each fold. 

A surprise part of the event followed, as Cowell had arranged for local schools to have their students write thank you notes for veterans to receive during a mail call.

The proceedings then moved outdoors, where members of the Waterloo Fire Department flew its garrison flag on one of their trucks. The crowd of other residents, staffers and community members sang “God Bless America,” then formed a line to simulate a hallway. They cheered and shouted “welcome home” as the veterans passed between them.

Veterans in attendance will receive a photo book courtesy of a professional photographer who attended the event. 

Johnson said she thinks the program is an excellent way to honor veterans. 

“Some of our veterans will never get a chance to see the memorials built in their honor,” she said. “If we can only bring it to them in video, that’s better than them not getting to see their memorial. They are the change that we are in the world.”

Cowell agreed, saying the program also reminded Oak Hill veterans how much citizens appreciate their service. 

“Our veterans should be celebrated, feel the love and appreciation we all share for them,” she said.

“This event provided us with an opportunity to do just that. The Oak Hill community is one big family that came together to honor our veterans in a unique and special way.” 

“This may be toward the end of their lives,” Cowell added. “And I want to make sure they really feel loved and that we all appreciate them for everything they’ve done.”

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