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Special day for Eastern Iowa veterans

Honor Flight takes 79 veterans to Washington, D.C.

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Minutes after chastising a boy for laying his baseball cap in the Plaza of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the tomb guard leaned down to thank an Eastern Iowa veteran in a wheelchair for his service.

The guard’s patient instructions for how to properly present a wreath at the tomb was one example of how Eastern Iowa veterans were treated on an Honor Flight trip Tuesday. There was also a police escort that didn’t stop for red lights. And a ukulele band at the airport. And the strangers who stopped to shake vets’ hands or saluted from the roadside.

“I feel overwhelmed with the whole trip,” said veteran Les Carlson, 83, of Manchester. “The outpouring of the people — the kids — was really something to witness.”

The Eastern Iowa Honor Flight, which has flown more than 2,000 veterans on day trips to Washington since 2009, took 79 veterans and their guardians Tuesday to see memorials to World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam, among others. The Gazette was a sponsor of the trip, which was free for veterans.

Between stops, Honor Flight tour guides peppered buses of veterans with D.C. trivia and good-natured digs on rivaling military branches.

Timon Oujiri, a Cedar Rapids native and retired colonel who spent 17 years working at the Pentagon, described how the Korean War Veterans Memorial shows sculptures of men walking in V-formation.

“Now you know they’re Army because Navy men walk differently,” he said, putting his hands to the back of his head as if he’d been captured.

The Navy veterans on the bus laughed, but gave it right back to Oujiri, causing him to remark: “I know. Army stands for Ain’t Ready for the Marines Yet.”

Tom Reinier, 69, of Iowa City, peered at the names carved into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, looking for the name of a young Philadelphia man he served with in Vietnam. The soldier, who Reinier knew as Hotshot, died several weeks into their tour.

Research by Reinier’s wife, Rosann, showed Tom’s buddy might have been Edmund Skunda — whose name Reinier found on the wall.

“I can’t believe the magnitude of this wall here,” said Bob Godwin, 81, of Iowa City. He served as an electrician on four ships in Korea. Tuesday, he saw the memorials with his son, Chris, of North Liberty.

“I didn’t think I would do this at first,” he said of the Honor Flight. “But Chris and my wife said, ‘You’re going to go.’ ”

Cheri Werges is proud of her father, Glenn Berns, 75, of Garnavillo, who was on the USS Kearsarge in 1962 when the aircraft carrier picked up a NASA space capsule containing astronaut Wally Schirra, who had just completed six orbits of the Earth before the craft parachuted into the Pacific Ocean.

“They told us to look up at two o’clock,” Berns said Tuesday, describing Schirra’s decent. “It was like a falling star.”

Abbey Overland, 24, of Washington, D.C., took time out from her job as a legislative correspondent for U.S. Sen Joni Ernst to meet up with her grandfather, Douglas Shaheen, 91, of Cedar Rapids, and her mother, Jan Overland, who was Shaheen’s guardian on the Honor Flight.

“Sometimes seniors get marginalized in society and it’s been a long time since he’s been validated in this way,” Jan Overland said about her father, who fought in World War II before serving in the U.S. Army Reserves and Iowa National Guard.

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