WASHINGTON D.C. – When Flight 9096 landed in Washington D.C. Sept. 8, the pages of the calendar flipped back a few decades.
For a brief moment, the passengers who got off the plane weren’t 80-something World War II veterans. They were young soldiers returning from battle, willing to give up their lives for the country they love.
Some carried nothing but memories. Others clutched black-and-white photographs of themselves, of their family, of their fallen comrades.
As they neared their gate, notes from a military march drifted overhead and there was the distant sound of applause.
The veterans entered Reagan National Airport together, some in wheelchairs, some using canes to steady themselves. They were greeted by a solid sea of red, white and blue. Dozens of onlookers – all strangers to the veterans – lined the airport walkways. They clapped and whistled and cheered like fans at a football game.
Many veterans stopped to shake hands with those who ran forward to offer a quick “thank you.” Others simply bowed their heads as tears slid down their wrinkled cheeks.
For the veterans and the crowd, this was a homecoming 60 years in the making.
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Flight 9096 marked a milestone for northeast Ohio. With more than 90 veterans on board, it was the first Honor Flight out of the Akron-Canton Airport.
Honor Flight is a program that provides U.S. veterans with a free trip to Washington D.C. to see the memorials built in their honor. Money and health issues often prevent veterans from making the trip on their own and many die without ever seeing their memorial.
With the help of volunteer escorts, or guardians, Honor Flight has taken 3,585 U.S. veterans to Washington D.C. since 2005. And if Honor Flight organizers have anything to say about it, this is just the beginning.
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As the charter bus pulled up to the curb outside the National World War II Memorial, hundreds of eyes looked at the tall pillars and the sparkling fountains.
“There’s our memorial,” one veteran said.
The group made its way to the Ohio pillar. They touched the marble, posed for pictures, remembered those who would never see it.
Then, one by one, they moved away to make room for those in line behind them. They strolled around the monument, soaking up its sounds, its smells, its atmosphere.
Army veteran Art Sayers of Alliance, Ohio, stopped in a shady spot to watch the fountain. Seeing the memorial made him think.
“It’s a shame that we have to give up our lives to be able to be free and live free,” he said.
Sayers was drafted into the Army near the end of the war and was stationed in the Philippines. He was so excited to see the world and serve his country that he left before finishing high school, although he did complete his education once he returned.
“It was quite an experience,” he said. “I wouldn’t have given it up for a million bucks.”
As Sayers sat by the fountain, a blonde-haired boy walked over and offered a small hand. As the veteran shook the hand three generations younger than his own, the boy said two simple words that resonated around the memorial.
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James Trachsel joined the Navy in 1944. He was all of 18 years old, but he couldn’t ignore the calling in his heart to defend his country.
During his 26 months in the service, Trachsel was on six ships. He doesn’t remember all their names anymore, but he remembers very plainly why he joined the service.
“We had a war,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
Trachsel, of New Philadelphia, Ohio, is grateful for the World War II memorial and the chance to see it.
“I think it’s a very nice memorial, I really do,” he said. “I think any World War II veteran would appreciate it.”
There was an added bonus on this trip for the Navy veteran. His sons, Steve and Gerry, served as Honor Flight guardians.
All three are veterans of different wars – Steve fought in the Korean War and Gerry fought in Vietnam.
Steve said it was nothing short of an honor to take his dad to Washington D.C.
As it turned out, the northeast Ohio Honor Flight group had the chance to visit several war memorials, including the Korean and Vietnam monuments.
And in front of each memorial, all three Trachsels stopped for a moment to pose for the camera.
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Delores and Stephen Hoza celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in May.
Both are veterans of World War II; he served in the Air Force, she served in the Army Nurse Corps. Neither had ever seen the memorial built to recognize their service.
That changed Sept. 8.
“It was beautiful,” Delores said. “It was very impressive.”
The couple had met before the war, but Stephen left early in 1942. They kept in touch through letters and occasional visits.
“He came home once and gave me his wings,” Delores said with a hint of schoolgirl giggle.
In 1945, Delores set out on her own military experience and wound up in Japan.
Seeing the memorial gave the Austintown couple a chance to look back, not only on themselves, but on their whole service experience. It was something they’ll appreciate for the rest of their lives.
“I think it was one of the nicest days I’ve spent,” Delores said.
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As Ilene Hall of North Canton, Ohio, climbed onto the bus at the end of the day, she mulled over the past eight hours.
The Honor Flight had given her a reason to dig into her memories and think about the time she spent stationed in England and France with the Women’s Army Corps.
As far as she could remember, there’s only moment in her life – a moment in 1945 – that can compete with the Honor Flight.
The only thing that comes close to today is coming home the week before Thanksgiving and seeing Lady Liberty standing there in that harbor.
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(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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