Last Tuesday, four local veterans set off on a trip unlike any other.
In less than 24 hours, the men flew alongside roughly 60 other veterans to Washington, D.C., saw seven different memorials and monuments and then arrived back in St. Louis by 8 p.m. through the Greater St. Louis Honor Flight.
While for many of the Columbia vets this was not their first time in the nation’s capital, there were still plenty of new sights to see.
“The last time I was in Washington, D.C. was 50 years ago, and the new monuments and memorials that they’ve built now are just absolutely amazing. It was worth going up there to see those,” said Jim Reeves, who served in the Army during Vietnam.
Jim Schroeder, who was in Korea for 17 months and 21 days with the Army, said he had visited the D.C. over 40 years ago. Like Reeves, he was especially excited to see all of the monuments that were erected since his last trip there.
“One of the places I liked was the World War II Monument, which I had never seen. That was outstanding,” Schroeder said, later adding, “The Air Force Memorial I thought was very good. There are three spears that go up sky high and to get a full picture of it you have to lay on your back. They’re that high!”
Having served in the Air Force in Vietnam and being overseas for 18 months, Lawrence Hanegan recognized one particular name on the Air Force Memorial: that of one of the fallen generals he served with.
Hanegan said he also had the same somber experience at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“On the Vietnam Wall, there was one specific name that I wanted to look up. He’s from my hometown and he was killed in action … he was in the Marines. I grew up with him (and) my youngest brother and him joined the Marines at the same time, but he didn’t make it,” Hanegan said of the childhood friend.
Another favorite of the trip, as evidenced by past Republic-Times Honor Flight articles, is the visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, where participants witness the changing of the guard.
“They walk 24/7, the guards. It’s kind of remarkable when they change the guard … they tell you not to make a sound. All you can hear is the clicking of the heels of the shoes when they walk and make the turns,” Hanegan said.
Alan Buchholz, another Vietnam veteran who resides in Columbia, said he was particularly moved by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but perhaps the most emotional part of the Honor Flight experience had nothing to do with the monuments.
As all of the veterans from Columbia described, service members in their uniforms saluted them as they walked through the airport, citizens and volunteers decked in red, white and blue held signs with patriotic messages and bagpipes and drums added to the excitement.
“They had the Marines and music. There were a lot of people. I was in tears. I was all choked up,” Buchholz said, adding this was very different from his experience when he returned home from three years serving during the war.
Buchholz explained the entire 18-hour flight back to the states after serving in Vietnam was silent and his father was the only one who greeted him at the airport.
Buchholz returned to work with the federal government in downtown St. Louis. Because this building housed the drafting office, it was inundated with protesters.
He even recalls one time when protesters made it into the building and security had to throw them out.
“They were protesting and everything, and it was like nobody cared about us,” Buchholz said. “I told several persons on the (Honor Flight) bus and they said, ‘That shouldn’t have happened to you.’”
As the warm welcome back from last week’s Honor Flight meant so much to Buchholz, he hopes to be one of the many people welcoming vets back from future Honor Flights.
These individuals were not the only ones who ensured the vets had a great Honor Flight experience. Each veteran had a guardian with them the whole trip – either a friend or family member from home or a volunteer through the organization.
While Reeves and Schroeder had one of their children accompany them, Hanegan and Buchholz were assigned guardians.
“She was outstanding,” Hanegan said of his guardian. “She treated me real well. She made sure I went to the right place and everything. She was a guardian angel, I’ll put it that way.”
Yet the real angels, the volunteers would say, are the brave men and women they serve on the Honor Flights.
For more information on the Greater St. Louis Honor Flight, visit gslhonorflight.org.
Hanegan, Reeves and Schroeder are proud members of Columbia American Legion Post 581. For more information on the post, call 618-281-5556.