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Honor Flight veterans in awe of trip

Aaron hagen/daily globe TOP: Middle school students visiting the World War II Memorial Saturday morning present cards of thanks to veterans Ray Kempema (center), of Brewster, and Les Heeringa, of Worthington, during Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota's third flight Friday and Saturday.

WASHINGTON -- On the first anniversary of Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota's inaugural flight, more than 100 World War II veterans from across southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa were touring the memorials on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., all thanks to the generosity of people here at home.

The veterans embarking on this third journey from southwest Minnesota were humbled by the attention that began as soon as they arrived at the airport in Sioux Falls, S.D., early Friday morning, and didn't end until after they'd walked outside that same airport Saturday night. Members of the Patriot Guard were joined by family and several soldiers from the 125th Field Artillery during both the send-off and welcome home.

While the veterans were surprised at all of the attention for their send-off, they were even more choked up by their welcome into Baltimore-Washington International Airport, which began when the BWI Fire Department provided a water canon over the airplane as it taxied toward the jet way. The water spray is reserved for dignitaries and distinguished guests flying into the D.C. area.

As the veterans walked off the jet way, there was another surprise -- soldiers and sailors anxiously awaiting their arrival with members of the national Honor Flight Network. Nate Mitchell, a sailor based at Fort Meade and a native of LaCrescent in southeast Minnesota, was among the Navy men and women celebrating the World War II veterans upon their arrival. Mitchell said he tries to welcome the Honor Flights as often as possible, and he especially enjoys the flights coming from Minnesota. There were six Minnesota flights planned to arrive in the D.C. area Friday and Saturday.

As the veterans stepped off the jetway, they were welcomed by cheers, handshakes and salutes by the crew.

"All my life I've never seen something like that -- and I'll never see it again, either," said teary-eyed World War II veteran Richard Alexander of Spirit Lake, Iowa.

"I'm just so choked up it's unbelievable," added Charlie Warren, of Sioux Center, Iowa. "I'm very proud and humble -- to see all those young people in uniform that are serving our country now, I've really been blessed."

The young soldiers and sailors formed a line outside the airport to send the three busses filled with veterans and guardians off for two busy days of sight-seeing in the nation's capital city.

Among the stops on Friday were the Air Force Memorial, Marine Corps Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery, where veterans watched the changing of the guard. Many also had the opportunity to view the marker of Audie Murphy, a Texas native who was the most-decorated soldier of World War II. Murphy, who returned home to eventually become a movie star, was recognized with the Medal of Honor, two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts, among others, for service to his country.

Friday evening, the veterans were treated to a Heroes Banquet and an opportunity to share stories of war.

Saturday was filled with visits at the Navy, Vietnam, Korean, Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt memorials and, of course, a more lengthy visit to the World War II Memorial, which was dedicated on the National Mall in May 2004.

Dave Ranney of Wheaton was impressed by all of the people who approached him during the visit to the memorial.

"I don't know how many times I've had tears in my eyes -- it's just overwhelming," he said. "Little kids come up and hug you and give you little posters. I've saved what I've got and I'll always have them - it's so moving."

Ranney, one of the youngest veterans on the third flight from Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota - and also the veteran living the farthest north in Minnesota among those making the journey -- said the entire trip was memorable.

"You just get so emotional," he said of the experience. "I've gotten more hugs than I've had for probably the last 20 years. Its been very memorable."

"It's top shelf -- above that even," said beaming Cottonwood veteran Mike Michelson. "It's really a nice trip. Everyone has handled us with a lot of care and treated us real good."

After two busy days in 70-degree sunshine in Washington, D.C., the veterans aboard Honor Flight returned to southwest Minnesota shortly before 10 p.m. Saturday to face 40-degree temperature and strong winds. Still, they were happy to be back home.

A special Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota edition, filled with personal stories discovered throughout the trip, as well as lots of full-color photographs, will be published with Saturday's Daily Globe.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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