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Honor Flight

The Nebraska column at the World War II Memorial was a popular spot for photos. World War II veteran Kathleen Briard (left) of Norfolk was just one of many veterans who had their picture taken there.

Back in January when Patriotic Productions announced it was planning the first female-only (and supposedly last-ever) honor flight, I knew I wanted to be part of it.

Since 2008, I had followed the honor flights through the work of Journal Star writers and photographers. I wanted the chance to tell the women’s stories.

The 135 veterans on Monday’s honor flight to Washington, D.C., came from all walks of life and ranged in age from 27 to 98. There were three mother-daughter pairs, and one set of sisters. And two service dogs.

It all began Sunday, when I (and about 150 other people) got to meet the guest speaker, Loretta Swit. The star from “M*A*S*H” was gracious and accommodating, but a little intimidating, too. And inspiring. Just like the character she played on the show — Maj. Margaret Houlihan.

The next morning at Eppley Airfield, at 3:15 a.m., we were greeted by the Papillion Area Concert Band, which played the “M*A*S*H” theme song “Suicide is Painless” when Swit appeared.

I was not in the military, but even I got chills and a little teary-eyed when we got off the plane at Reagan National Airport and people were lined up, clapping, cheering, waving flags, shaking hands and thanking the veterans for their service.

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Honor Flight

Rachel Blake of Lincoln takes a rubbing from the Vietnam Wall with the help of Ron Carlson. There are more than 79,000 names on the wall.

It takes a village for any endeavor to succeed. That’s especially the case with the honor flights put on by Bill and Evonne Williams from Patriotic Productions.

They have plenty of experience taking honor flights to Washington, flying more than 3,500 veterans to the nation’s capital. Having just 10 hours to see the sights of Washington means everything needs to be scheduled tightly. But no one could have foreseen that the honor flight buses would need 45 minutes just to get off the airport grounds.

Bill and Evonne had everything else in hand. Their “guardian” volunteers were there if we needed anything, and volunteer Erica Wimer made sure all of us on bus No. 3 knew exactly what time to return to the bus. She even had her kindergartners at Guardian Angels Central Catholic in West Point make cards for the veterans.

The donors also deserve a thank you. Without them, the flight wouldn’t have been possible. Sandhills Publishing and AuctionTime.com sponsored the flight for the third straight year. Markel Insurance and Gallup Corp. were also donors. Veterans got some great swag — red shirts, black vests, crossbody purses or fanny packs. And plastic rain ponchos, which came in handy.

Monday morning’s rain was a nuisance, but thankfully there was no lightning. The veterans were able to get out and see the memorials up close. A little rain wasn’t going to stop these women. They’ve been to war, after all.

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Honor Flight

Ninety-eight-year-old Edith Petersen of Council Bluffs, Iowa, the oldest veteran on Monday's honor flight to Washington, D.C., is interviewed by a Washington TV reporter at the Iwo Jima Memorial.

It’s hard to believe that you can get more than 100 people to stand totally silent for 10 minutes. But that was the case at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

When we were there, a bunch of schoolchildren followed protocol. But inside the Tomb of the Unknowns exhibit hall, there was a young boy who kept replicating the guards’ clicking of their heels as they turn during their march in front of the tomb. The boy’s actions got a little annoying after a while.

Our tour guide, Ron Carlson, said during the changing of the guard, the stoic guards never appear to be affected by anything going on around them. But sometimes, according to Carlson, a guard will drag his heel so that a tap can be heard, as a way to honor veterans in attendance. I swear I heard that extra little tap Monday.

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Honor Flight

After it stopped raining Monday, Nebraska veterans on the honor flight lined up for a group photo at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.

I got to meet some great women, including 98-year-old Edith Petersen of Council Bluffs, Iowa. I knew she was going to be on the flight, but it was pure chance that I ran into her daughter, Peggy Petersen-Owen, on Sunday afternoon. I asked if I could talk with her mom, so she and her mom and I settled in a relatively quiet spot and I heard some great stories about Edith’s service in the South Pacific during World War II.

I also got to talk with Nebraska Army National Guard Col. Georgia Kroese of Lincoln, the first female commander of a unit in Operation Enduring/Iraqi Freedom.

And Linda Plock, also of Lincoln, who in 1973 became the first female helicopter mechanic in the U.S. armed forces.

And two young TV reporters, who struggled to get good video in the rain, then had to scramble to get it back to the station in time for the local newscast.

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Honor Flight

Some of the re-enactors wearing period uniforms at the World War II Memorial.

One of the most moving moments came when we visited the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial. Despite the steady rain, the veterans spent 45 minutes walking among the benches honoring the 184 victims of the terrorist attack in Washington. I think it affected me so much because I vividly remember scenes from that day. And because the memorial is dedicated to a specific, memorable event, instead of a years-long or decades-long war.

Our guide put a human face on the tragedy, telling about walking 8 miles to get home, in dress shoes, no less, that day because the Metro route he usually took went right past the Pentagon. He told of seeing the smoke rising from the plane crash site hours later.

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After lunch at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, the veterans visited the World War II Memorial, where re-enactors wearing clothes of the time greeted them. There was Rosie the Riveter, airmen and soldiers, all looking as if they’d just stepped out of the 1940s.

The veterans also spent time at the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and the Vietnam Wall. The Lincoln Memorial is massive, the Korean War Memorial eerie and the Vietnam Wall sobering.

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Honor Flight

Family members were among the first people to welcome home the female veterans Monday night after their one-day trip to Washington, D.C.

People in the terminal at Reagan National Airport had to wonder what was going on when chants of Go Big Red broke out and Husker fight songs were played. The Nebraska veterans were entertained by a swing dance group that invited them to dance.

The flight crew was all-female — both pilots and the four attendants. One of the attendants drew hoots from the passengers earlier Monday when she said over the intercom: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Washington, D.C.” But she learned her lesson. When we landed in Omaha, it was: “Ladies and ladies, welcome to Cancun.” We all got a laugh out of that.

The first 45 minutes of the flight home were quiet. The cabin lights were dimmed and everybody was either sleeping or talking quietly. But once the attendants began serving drinks (nonalcoholic, of course), and the volunteers distributed patriotic sugar cookies, the energy level skyrocketed. Women were standing in the aisle talking, the attendants were laughing with the passengers, and everybody was having a grand old time.

But as the plane neared Eppley Airfield, things got a little rocky. The pilots pulled out of their approach because of strong crosswinds. Somebody in the back remarked jokingly, “We’re just doing a flyby.” Instead, the plane made a big loop and landed from the other direction.

Once the plane touched down, the women erupted in applause, then somebody in the back started singing “God Bless America.” Another goosebump moment.

But the best was yet to come. Family members were waiting outside the gate at Eppley, and hundreds of others, including a band, were lined up on the concourse. They gave the veterans the welcome home many of them missed while serving.

I knew the Nebraska media was covering the flight, but I doubt anybody could have expected that CNN and Fox News would pick up the story. So did TV stations in Corning, New York. And Indianapolis. And Billings, Montana. And Honolulu.

Thanks, Bill and Evonne Williams, for the chance to be part of the female honor flight. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I was thrilled to be in the presence of such great Nebraska (and Iowa) women.

Before the flight, the veterans were a bunch of women who had one common denominator — they all had volunteered for military service. But by the end of the day Monday, they were sisters. Sisters-in-arms.

Photos from the honor flight

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News content coordinator

Julie Koch is night editor.

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