By Jeremy Ratliff
Last month local Korean War era veteran Lyle Whiting got quite the surprise one day when he pulled into work at Breaman Ford.
“Then he brought me into the back room and then I seen the whole crew! All the employees were there and next thing I know I was given an envelope with five-hundred dollars!”
Those were the words of 82-year-old Lyle Whiting, upon receiving a $500 donation from Breaman Ford employees for his son Russ to accompany him as a guardian on the “Never Forgotten Honor Flight,” a non-profit organization dedicated to transporting WWII, Korean and Vietnam war era veterans, as well as all terminally ill veterans to Washington D.C to visit and reflect at their respective memorials.
On the evening of Sunday, May 10, the Whiting trio of Lyle, wife Fern and son Russ, arrived in Wausau for a banquet at the Howard Johnson Inn.
“The banquet was really something,” Fern said, “We had a sit-down turkey dinner and were treated to live music from ‘The Trillions,’ a five-piece band from Minocqua who played patriotic songs.”
In addition, the banquet included a flag presentation, hymns from all branches of the US Armed Forces as well as an open seat and folded flag in honor of veterans listed as Missing In Action (MIA).
“Parts of the banquet were very emotional, a lot of tears,” Fern adds.
Following a continental breakfast at Central Wisconsin Airport on Friday morning, Russ and Lyle boarded a Sun Country airliner at 7 a.m., along with nearly 90 other area veterans, bound for Washington D.C.
As the aircraft rolled down the runway for takeoff, the flight was treated to fire trucks shooting their water cannons over the top of the plane.
“That was pretty darn neat,” Lyle adds with a smile.
The plane touched down at Ronald Reagan National Airport near Washington D.C at 9 a.m. and those aboard were soon treated to a very pleasant surprise.
“They shot the water cannons over the top of the plane as we touched down too which was pretty neat, but boy was it really something when we walked into the airport terminal!” Lyle says as his eyes grow large and a wide grin spreads across his face.
As he and Russ explain, as the veterans entered the airport terminal, an announcement was made over the airport’s public address system announcing the Honor Flight’s arrival.
“All of a sudden we were just surrounded,” Russ adds. “It was a shock at first to have so many people around you so suddenly.”
“I’ve never shook so many hands in my life. I felt like a politician!” Lyle jokes with a laugh.
Following the warm airport welcome, the veterans boarded three buses for the ensuing tour of monuments and memorials. For organizational and logistical purposes, each veteran was given a star to be worn on their name tags. The color of the star coordinated with which bus they were assigned to.
“There were seven other honor flights that day, but we never seen any of them. That gives you an idea how well coordinated and organized everything was. I think they intended it that way to keep everything organized and running smoothly,” Russ said.
As an added measure, the “Never Forgotten Honor Flight” members all donned Packers colors; yellow polo shirts with green lettering.
The guided tour to follow consisted of numerous stops including the World War II Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Vietnam War Memorial as well as memorial monuments of each of the armed forces service branches.
Of all the stops made last Monday, Lyle and Russ agree, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Arlington National Cemetery were the highlights and will be the most memorable.
“The tour was coordinated around the schedule of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and changing of the guard,” Russ explains. It doesn’t happen very often, but there happened to be an-off duty sentry in the area who is assigned to the tomb. He asked to speak with us and informed us of what the sentry’s duties are. He told us about the very precise way the sentrys walk and why and also explained how a sergeant is on hand at every guard change, to inspect the next guard. If there is any flaw on the guard’s uniform, even a speck of lint or an out of place crease, that guard is dismissed and not allowed to take his post. Sentrys have to be a certain height and so on, it is very precise and strict.”
Along with the strictly enforced standards, Russ also mentions a strictly enforced quiet zone at the tomb.
“Even if there is a child crying or misbehaving, the parents are informed of the quiet zone by the sergeant in a very quick manner. They take it very, very seriously.”
“Only the sergeant wears rank on his sleeve, ya know,” Lyle adds, his voice quiet and wavering a bit. “That’s ‘cause they have no idea what rank the unknown soldier was… they do that out of honor… ”
Aside from being a very long day between the early morning wake-up, flight to Washington, an all-day tour and the flight home (estimated 20 hours), both father and son agree the experience and memories were well worth the exhaustion.
“I was very impressed with how well run and organized everything was,” Russ said. “From the time we left, until the time we came back, everything was regimented right down to the most specific of details. They really took care of the guys, ya know… everyone went so far out of their way for the veterans, which was amazing. It was the vets’ day and people made sure of that.”
“I would recommend this experience to any veteran,” Lyle adds, ”It was such an impressive trip. I will never forget it. They say the veterans are never forgotten but I tell ya what, that trip will never be forgotten either!”
The Whitings would like to express their sincere gratitude and appreciation for all of the well wishes sent to Lyle and Russ as well as the generosity of Breaman Ford of Merrill for making the trip possible.
By Jeremy Ratliff