They say you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes to get to know who they really are. I recently had that opportunity when I took a journey in the lives of 84 veterans, including one very special man — my father.

Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019 began with a 1:45 a.m. alarm to wake us for a day on the Midwest Honor Flight (Smithfield Foods Mission 5) out of Sioux Falls, S.D., headed for a tribute day in Washington, D.C. As my father, Edwin Johanning, and I made our way to the hotel lobby to meet the other heroes from southwest Minnesota, northwest Iowa and South Dakota, there was great anticipation in the air. Not one person looked tired or agitated at the idea of being up so early. When we arrived at the airport for our 4:45 a.m. flight, the appreciation of our veterans began. The Honor Flight crew was lined up, thanking each veteran personally for their service as they prepared to board the plane.

One might have thought since we were flying in the wee hours of the morning, that people would have slept. They didn’t. Veteran seated next to Veteran, they got to know one another while forming a camaraderie.

When we arrived at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, the airport literally stopped. No flights boarded, no voices came over the intercom — they all stood and clapped. Some people waved small flags. Many people came up to shake our veterans’ hands and give them their sincere thank-yous for protecting our freedoms. Watching the reaction of my father, he was so touched. As we walked from our flight gate to the buses, the applause continued and so did the emotions. In fact, everywhere we went our veterans were greeted by sincere shows of gratitude — some that left even me speechless.

Our first stop of the tour was at Arlington National Cemetery to see the Changing of the Guard. It was quiet and calm, a show of dedication and respect. It was patriotism at its highest form. It makes an impact on you. My dad said this was one of his favorite parts of the day. One of my favorite parts of the day, however, came after we were leaving the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. That’s when we came upon a father with a son, who I’m guessing was about 8 years old, and a daughter, who was maybe 6. They were walking on the path to see the Changing of the Guard as we were walking away from it. The little girl was in front and followed by her brother, who was followed by the dad. Without prompting, the little girl walked right up to my dad. She held out her hand to shake his and said, “Thank you for your service.” Again, my dad’s face — tears in my eyes again. The little brother did the same, as did their dad. It was breathtaking to watch.

Before leaving Arlington Cemetery, I wanted to get a picture of my dad in front of the Memorial Amphitheater located on the grounds. There were a few other veterans lined up getting ready to take their picture as well. As they all got into position, a small group of tourists came up and asked if they could take a picture of them too. The veterans looked shocked. “Why would they want a photo of strangers in their picture?” seemed to be the consensus look on all their faces. It’s because they are heroes. After the pictures were taken, the tourists came up to each of the veterans, shook their hands and took a few moments to speak personally with them. It left many of the veterans with tears in their eyes.

This reaction of the public continued throughout the day as we traveled to each monument. It wasn’t even me they were thanking, yet my heart swelled with pride — for my dad and ALL of the veterans. To see them being appreciated, to see them proud of their mission to protect our country, to see them getting the recognition they deserve — it was so humbling.

The Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Wall, the Air Force Memorial, the WWII Memorial, Iwo Jima … we saw so much. Throughout all of our stops, we had a wonderful tour guide who not only provided us with historical information, but also Honor Flight stories that she has been a part of over the years. The one story that still gives me goosebumps took place at the United States Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima). Our tour guide noted how she likes to just wander and observe the veterans as they look at the memorials. One day, she just so happened to be standing behind two veterans and overheard this conversation: The first man stood looking at the monument of the Marines raising the flag. He looked at the veteran on the same Honor Flight as him and mentioned how he remembered that battle all too well. He was on the first boat in, and while there were many tragic events that day, the worst part was that he lost his best friend in that battle. The man he was talking to turned and looked at him and said that he had the exact same story. The first man looked at the second man’s name tag and told him it was ironic, that he had the same name as his best friend he lost. But he really didn’t think much about it because it was a “common” name. The second man, then looking at the first man’s name tag said, you have the same name as my buddy too and it’s not a common name. Yep … they were each other’s best friend. They each thought the other had lost their life that day at Iwo Jima. Now here they were, more than 60 years later, reunited at the monument of the very battle they thought they lost each other in.

“The moral of my story,” said the tour guide, “is take a look around at the veterans you are here with today. You never know who you might be reunited with.”

This, and stories like them, are what our veterans come home with from an Honor Flight thanks to the hundreds of volunteers and donors who make Honor Flights all over the nation possible. Because of these generous people, they come home with a feeling of appreciation and pride in the job they’ve done. They know we are a grateful nation.

When we returned to Sioux Falls at 8:40 p.m., you think we would have expected what was to come next .. .but we didn’t. As the plane pulled up to the gate, we were greeted with the fire department and water cannons. Fireworks went off. When we got off the plane, there were bagpipes playing. The Freedom Riders (a motorcycle group) were there, waving flags, cheering, shaking hands. Everyday, common people were there. They didn’t necessarily know anyone; they were just there to show appreciation for our veterans. I’m quite sure there was not a dry eye in our group. Then we pulled into the Welcome Home Rally. People were cheering. Family, friends and even strangers held posters thanking them for their service while calling them heroes. Listening to the response of the veterans sitting on the bus, waiting to get out and see their loved ones and all those cheering people that she has been a part of they were in awe.

What’s amazing to me is that this particular Honor Flight — The Midwest Honor Flight — was started only two years ago by a 21-year-old young man. He has been on every flight, and I can tell you he has a true passion of making sure each and every veteran knows they are appreciated. When a veteran wanted to talk, he always had time to listen. It’s as if he had all the time in the world with them. The other thing Aaron was heard saying throughout this whole experience was to ask a veteran about their story. They may not want to share, and that’s OK, but you never know when they might want to share. It’s important to give them that opportunity, and it’s important that we let them know what a grateful nation we are.

My goal as my father’s guardian on this once-in-a-lifetime trip wasn’t only to assist him on his journey, but to get to know more about his time in the Army. But, at the end of the day, I learned so much more that could never be put into words.