Eastern Iowa WWII Vets Honor Flight

By Mark Geary, Reporter

EASTERN IOWA / WASHINGTON, D.C. – Like well-trained soldiers, a group of veterans in their 80s obeyed marching orders and began a 900 mile trek to the nation's capital on Tuesday.

Some traveled on foot. Others required wheelchairs. Just a few months ago, the men never would have dreamed of going anywhere at 4:00 a.m. On this day, they were wide awake and on a mission to see a stone monument salute to their service.

At the Quad City International Airport, the group of grandpas grabbed their boarding passes and shuffled to the gate. Familiar tunes from the 1940s brought back memories while they prepared for takeoff.

Veterans were now just a few steps away from a trip sixty years in the making. As they took flight on a private jet, the first of many surprises gathered to greet them on the ground. A crowd of soldiers and community members applauded and waved flags in the terminal.

"We thank you for saving our generation. Thank you very much," one man said to the veterans.

Most of the senior citizens have never had any recognition for sacrifices they made during the war.

"With the people greeting you and thanking you for your service-- it kind of touches you a little bit," 86-year-old Leonard Benhard, of Cedar Rapids, said.

Once everyone arrived at the World War II memorial, picture-perfect weather made the visit even more enjoyable.

"It's just a marvelous monument," Robert Zink, an 85-year-old Navy veteran from Cedar Rapids said, "You can't know how 'gung ho' we were right after Pearl Harbor. A lot of guys, quite a few guys, bailed out of high school to go."

Veterans dedicated years of their lives to serve their country. Yet, many had never been to the nation's capital until they came here on the Honor Flight.

"When we came back from World War II, we just wanted to get back to our jobs and family. I never even thought much about it," 86-year-old Michael Bisek, of Cedar Rapids, said.

84-year-old Navy Veteran Wayne Lewis, of Hiawatha, said, "So many lives were lost. I was telling a guy on the way here, I don't deserve this. These guys that died deserve this more than I do."

Beneath the smiles, hugs and handshakes, horrific memories still haunt their hearts and minds.

"I lost a lot of fox hole buddies over there," 84-year-old Army Veteran Floyd Shaffer, of Cedar Rapids, said, "I've tried to blow my nose and get the thoughts out of my head my whole life. I did, at a young age, see so much killing and loss of life."

Most were only 18-years-old when they stepped forward to defend the country and freedom their children and grandchildren often take for granted.

"When I was young, I didn't know what we were fighting for. I just thought somebody was going to come over and take our land or something and I wasn't going to let them do that," Bisek said.

81-year-old Myron Rodee, of Marion, said, "There wasn't a whole lot of thought process at that age."

Later, they visited the Iwo Jima Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the tomb of the unknown soldier. The historic changing of the guard reminded the veterans about the new group of soldiers who now serve and protect America.

"This Iraq situation is nasty and a bad, bad deal. But, in a way, it can't compare to World War II and what went on there," Lewis said.

Veterans may have expected to sleep on the plane ride home. Instead, organizers surprised them with thank you letters from Iowa high school and elementary students.

Then, a set of bagpipes back at the airport signaled the start of a hero's homecoming celebration.

Hundreds of people lined the pathway as veterans paraded through and traded smiles and handshakes with strangers who stayed up late just to say, "Thank you."

"I don't know how to describe it really. But, it just makes you feel proud to be an American," 83-year-old Laverne Severson, of Cedar Rapids, said.

By the end of the day, seeing the stone cold statues at the World War II memorial was no longer the highlight of the trip. Any of the brave Americans who participated will tell you the warm welcome home was the greatest honor of the day.

For this journey, eastern Iowa veterans had to travel with the Honor Flight of the Quad Cities organization. Right now, Linn County Chairperson Mary Clapp is in the process of creating a Linn County based chapter. It's in the infancy stage. The group is requesting recommendations from the community to establish an executive board to help create a Cedar Rapids hub. If you are a veteran and would like to participate in a future Honor Flight, email: CRHonorFlight@mchsi.com

E-mail Mark Geary at Mark.Geary@kcrg.com or follow him on Twitter.
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