Over the weekend, the Badger Honor Flight made its 13th trip to the nation’s capital.
The program was started to give a dwindling group of World War II veterans a chance to see the memorial. But now there’s a new crop of veterans and only News3’s Jennifer Hoff joined them on the trip.
This is the first year the honor flight invited Korean War Veterans. More than 50 flew Saturday, but there’s another 400 on a waiting list and the organization is determined to give each of them a chance to fly.
“Our mission is to fly all vets,” said flight organizer Steve Bartlett. “We’ll be taking Vietnam (veterans) next.”
The honor flight opened up to Korean War Veterans last year, after applications from World War II vets slowed as the amount of surviving veterans dwindles.
Korean War veterans are in their 80s, which adds to the urgency to sign them up, too.
Mary Reinhardt and Myrle Thompson both served in Korea and were the only women on the flight.
Neither woman had ever visited the monument built in their honor before Saturday.
“It’s sad to see all the memorials, but it’s still a good feeling to know that they’re remembered and honored,” said Thompson, who’s also Native American. “The Ho Chunk Nation really honors their veterans at powwows and wherever we go.”
Verona native Julian Rhiner had seen the monument, but its impressiveness wasn’t lost on the man who served as a combat engineer for three years.
“It’s quite important,” Rhiner said. “At least they recognize what we done that way, that’s the way I look at.”
A million and a half American soldiers fought in the war that lasted from 1950-1953. There’s a truce between North and South Korea, but the two countries keep fighting.
“It was the first time we weren’t threatened as a country, where we went in to try and spread democracy,” said Bartlett.
Nineteen figures, more than 7 feet tall each, make up the memorial, including a granite wall etched with the faces of veterans.
“It’s just been great,” said Reinhardt, upon her return to Madison. “Even little kids, they come and shake your hand and say, 'Thank you.'”
Six thousand people packed the Dane County Regional Airport Saturday night to give the group a proper homecoming, the most flight organizers thought have ever congregated there before.
For Reinhardt, and the other Korean War veterans, it was a celebration 60 years in the making.
One supporter said, “It’s an incredible thing. It’s just heartfelt and you could tell they appreciated we all came out here.”
The Badger Honor Flight is funded by donations. This year, the Ho Chunk Nation presented the organization a $20,000 check.
There will be more flights next spring and veterans are flown on a first come, first served basis. To find out more information, including an application, go online.