They are known as the greatest generation, the men and women of World War II.
In October, I had the privilege of traveling to Washington, D.C., with one of them as a guardian with mid-Michigan Honor Flight.
I was excited and nervous.
I was prepared for the long day, which started at 5 a.m. and ended at midnight.
I was prepared for the physical part of helping a veteran the entire day.
What I wasn’t prepared for were the emotions that washed over me as I watched these heroes remember.
When my veteran, Walter, told me about his experience as a marine in the Pacific I felt like I was reliving the war with him. From the beaches of Guadalcanal to the hills of Iwo Jima, we journeyed together through the memorials in D.C. and the memories in his mind.
Our group of 62 veterans, guardians, and support personnel visited the World War II memorial, the Korean and Vietnam War memorials, the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps memorials, and Arlington Cemetery.
Along the way, current service personnel and members of the public stopped to thank and honor the heroes in our group.
We left Traverse City early that morning with a send off from a full color guard and landed in D.C. to a fire department water salute. We returned home to hundreds of local residents with flags and banners. It was truly a trip meant to honor those on board.
Our final stop in D.C. was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Changing of the Guard.
We were warned that the soldiers involved in the ceremony would not veer from their carefully choreographed ritual. We were also told that on rare instances, the relief commander might acknowledge or honor someone special in the audience by scuffing his heel as he walked by. It would be subtle. We would have to pay rapt attention or we might miss it.
The ceremony was perfectly executed, appropriately solemn, and a fitting tribute to our unknown soldiers.
When the relief commander walked past our group for the final time as he installed the new sentinel, the only noise that could be heard was the scuffing of his heel.
As he passed, veterans of the greatest generation, slowly began to stand from their wheelchairs and salute. In that moment, I was reminded that respect, valor and honor cross all generational boundaries.
When we landed back in Traverse City, Walter reached for my hand and said quietly, “thank you for what you did for me today.” I was astonished to be thanked for something so insignificant by someone who had given so much.
I burst into tears.
Maybe it was the emotion of the day. Maybe I was just tired.
Or maybe, I was just overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what these veterans did and how humble they remain about it.
Learn more about mid-Michigan Honor Flight and how you can help support their work at midmichiganhonorflight.com.