The last time Kodey Kerkman was on a plane surrounded by soldiers, he was returning from a dangerous deployment in Iraq.
His O’Neill-based 755th Chemical Company had spent nearly a year protecting military convoys trying to get from base to base.
“We were exposed to all of the elements — roadside bombs, small-arms fire,” the former Nebraska National Guardsman from Atkinson said. “We were out there on the roads, outside of the bases.”
And in harm’s way. Midway through his tour, the Humvee he was in was ripped apart when it hit a roadside bomb near Balad. Another soldier from Atkinson, Sgt. Jacob Schmuecker, was killed in the attack. Kerkman was hospitalized with burns but ultimately returned to the road.
A decade later, the Purple Heart he earned that day has become a ticket to Washington. Because the next time Kerkman is on a plane surrounded by soldiers, he’ll be part of the Nebraska Purple Heart Flight, which will carry more than 150 veterans on a free, daylong trip to visit the nation’s war memorials and monuments.
“I’ve never been there,” Kerkman said. “My hope would be other people from my actual unit would be signing up for this as well. It would be nice to catch up with them.”
The May 24 flight is open to Purple Heart recipients from the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan, and to those who earned the Bronze Star with a V for valor, the highest decorated combat vets, in the same wars.
The flight is the latest trip hosted by Bill and Evonne Williams, whose Patriotic Productions nonprofit has taken more than 3,500 Nebraskans — veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam — to Washington. In September, they took 135 on a women-only flight.
Previous flights filled quickly, with the couple often scrambling to raise money to charter additional jets. In 2014, for instance, they took 450 Korean vets to Washington in one day.
The couple already found funding for the Purple Heart plane; Sandhills Publishing donated the roughly $85,000 charter cost. But interest in this trip is starting more slowly than others, with about a dozen applicants so far.
They hope to have all the spots filled by March. “We haven’t pushed it very hard. But we’ve got room,” Bill Williams said. “We want every seat taken, of course.”
The trip will roughly follow past itineraries, with visits to the memorials to World War II, Korea and Vietnam, Arlington National Cemetery and the Air Force and Marine Corps War memorials.
The Purple Heart vets will also see the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the Pentagon. And the couple made more changes. Also aboard the flight will be Gold Star children, who lost a parent in Iraq or Afghanistan.
They’ll visit the memorials with the vets, but then they’ll see the Remembering Our Fallen Tribute Towers at the Lincoln Memorial. The traveling photo exhibit — another project of Bill and Evonne Williams — has toured the country since summer 2017, honoring more than 5,000 U.S. military members killed in the war on terror.
“That’s going to be a powerful scene,” Bill Williams said. “The Nebraska entourage walking among those towers, the kids looking for Dad’s pictures.”
The couple also reworked the homecoming celebration. In the past, crowds would gather at the airport to cheer the returning vets. This time, the Nebraskans will ride trolleys from the Omaha airport and start a mini-parade through the Old Market, led by a marching band.
They hope the streets are lined with people. And on a Friday night before the Memorial Day weekend, the crowds should be there, Bill Williams said.
The trip will end at the Durham Museum, the former Union Station. A fitting end to the long day, he said.
“It has history of vets coming home through the train station. And we wanted them to walk through that.”