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Eastern Iowa Honor Flight was a day to remember

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Harold Zink, guest columnist

On April 18, I was privileged to be a part of the Eastern Iowa Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. for a guided tour of all the war memorials and some of the historic buildings and monuments. I understand that these Honor Flights are being conducted all over the country. The officers and volunteers for our group did an outstanding job in giving us a wonderful day of memories since our long ago participation in the armed forces of the U.S.

A month before the trip, we attended a two-hour orientation meeting that was attended by all the veterans slated for this trip and all the guardians that volunteered to attend the veterans. Some veterans needed physical assistance to participate and some did not. Our orientation was outstanding. We had presentation of the colors and retirement of the colors. The program has been planned to seat all the people that were color coded for their bus and their guardians so they could get acquainted. Some guardians only had one veteran and others looked after two. My partner was a Navy veteran from the Korean War Era, as was I, and our guardian was his son who is a veteran of the Marine Corps and a medic at a later time. Guardians had to pay their own airfare for the trip. The program covered every aspect of the trip with instructions for every situation, using videos and oral presentations by the staff. We went away from there completely informed and excited for the trip a month hence.

We were divided into three groups that would fill each of the chartered buses in D.C. and we were presented color-coded lanyards with attached name tags, and a parking pass for parking at The Eastern Iowa Airport. We were all presented with red T-shirts and all the guardians with blue ones.

On the big day, we gathered at the airport very early — just after 5 a.m. Iowa time — to register that we were there and to pick up our boarding passes. We had to show current photo ID to bard and everything else was taken care of. There were 87 veterans on the trip. A few World War II veterans, many Korean-era and a few Vietnam-era veterans. With guardians, staff and volunteers, we filled all the seats of a Boeing 737. After takeoff and at cruising altitude, we were treated to a nice hot breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage, hash browns and all kinds of drinks. We had four lovely stewardesses to care for our needs. I had never heard of this airline and deduced that it was a charter service for this kind of event. Our flight was good and we arrived at Ronald Reagan International import at about 9:30, EST. We were greeted by many school-aged children, teachers and moms welcoming us to D.C.

We took a bathroom stop then boarded our three very nice buses. We had the red bus, the white bus, and the blue bus which we got on based on the color of our lanyard. They were marked with a sign with the appropriate color. They stressed that they would have bottled water at every stop and that we should stay hydrated. Each bus carried nice wheelchairs for those in need and snacks and water. There were bathrooms at every stop. We had a police escort every place we went, otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to negotiate our tour in one day. Our first stop was the World War II memorial. Each bus had a volunteer tour guide on a PA system that told us what we were observing everywhere we went. We were joined by Iowa’s senior Sen. Chuck Grassley and Eastern Iowa Rep. Rod Blum. We had a group photo taken with our back to the memorial and we were facing the Washington Monument, which was a few hundred yards away. We didn’t go to that memorial, but got to see it several times that day. My guardian is retired and a professional photographer so he took pics for me and his dad all day.

I knew some of the history of the Washington Memorial from my stint in the Masonic Lodge. At 11:50 a.m., we boarded our buses and headed out for a tour of Washington, D.C. while we ate a very good box lunch. We listened to the narrator tell us about all the buildings we were seeing and the streets we were on. At about 12:30 p.m., we arrived at the Korean and Vietnam memorials. I was able to find the name of a high school classmate that was killed in Nam. He and I shared an occurrence that was not very pleasant when we were kids.

We had a nice swimming pool in our town that was built by the American Legion years before. The filter house near the deep end of the deepest part was a wooden building about 25 feet square. The high diving board was atop the building and the top was ringed by a banister-type railing. We could climb up the tower and await our turn to jump of dive from the high board which was 12 feet above the water.

I had just dived off, went to the bottom and pushed off to go to the surface. Just as I broke the surface, you could witness a loud thump. Schoolmate Bill had dived off right after me and didn’t wait for me to clear the area. He dove with his arms apart, as did many swimmers, and we hit head to head. It drove me back to the bottom and I was unconscious and it split his scalp requiring 20-some stitches to close.

The lifeguard on duty that night was a mature man who was a super swimmer and a family friend. On notification of the incident he ran down the concrete beach, losing his glasses and clogs, did an Olympic-quality dive across the four-foot area and into the deep end where he pulled me to safety. He handed me off to friends and went to pull Bill from the water, yelling and bleeding. Friends got me home. I had a brain concussion that bedeviled me for three or four days. That must be why I am still goofy today. Ha, ha.

We both survived.

• • •

We boarded our buses and left for the Women’s memorial near an entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. It was very nice and showed the contribution of women in the military. As we loaded up the buses and waited for everyone to get back, we witnessed two different funeral processions of caissons pulled by horses with Army riders entering the cemetery. The coffins were wrapped in black and were very stately. We were told that they performed this service there about 23 times each day. When everyone got on the buses we headed into the cemetery to visit the Tomb of the Unknown where we got to witness the changing of the guard and the presentation of wreaths by two of D.C.’s high schools. I was moved by those high school kids, looking all the while at our old veterans in wheelchairs and the rest of us in the bleachers next to them. They always say that the kids know nothing of what happened in the wars. These kids must have had teachers that wanted to change that.

After the ceremony we went to the other side of the memorial and had a group picture taken. Then on to the buses again. The captain of the guard came on to each bus to address us and to answer any questions we had. Then off to visit the Marine Corps War Memorial, which depicts the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi. We were told that it was the largest bronze memorial in the world. It always looked small in pictures, but it is very large.

On to the Air Force Memorial, where we could see the Pentagon and the far-off Capitol. To the buses and off to the airport where we were served our evening meal in a box while waiting to be flown home.

The trip home was pleasant and restful for a very tired group. When we arrived at The Eastern Iowa Airport and deplaned into the terminal, awaiting us was a group of people with large flags and an airport terminal absolutely filled with men, women and children shaking hands, hugging and thanking us for our service to this country. I do mean the terminal was full. I understand that every Honor Flight receives this kind of homecoming in our state. It was a long and tiring day, but the unbelievable preparation and the super job by everyone involved made it a day to remember for all our days.

I served in the Navy from 1948-1952. I never saw combat but we serviced submarines in the Atlantic Fleet. President Truman added a year to all enlistments when Korea flared up. My older brother and two brothers-in-law were heroes in World War II. I sincerely appreciate what everyone did during those times.

I hope you all get to experience one of these visits to our capitol to see the fine memorials erected in our honor.

• Harold Zink, Em1 U.S. Navy, lives in Cedar Rapids.

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