Monday morning, 94 veterans from across central and northern Wisconsin converged on Mosinee’s Central Wisconsin Airport for the 23rd Never Forgotten Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. Among those arriving were five Lincoln County veterans: John Benzinger of Merrill, and John Friske, John Hering Jr., Buddy Gessler and Thomas Swarthout, all of Tomahawk.
The flight’s festivities kicked off Sunday evening with a reception and dinner for veterans, guardians and family members at Wausau’s Highland Community Church. Those in attendance enjoyed the thoughts and sentiments of various speakers, a home-cooked roast beef and chicken breast dinner, as well as various vocal performances.
One such performance included that of Trillium, a 3-piece Minocqua based vocal group and their 12-song medley tribute to Honor Flight veterans.
All five local veterans were in attendance, including Friske, the lone WWII veteran who served in the Pacific Theatre of Operations as a RADAR unit crewman in the United States Marine Corps between 1943 and 1945. The remaining four area veterans served in various areas of South Vietnam.
Merrill native Benzinger served as a U.S. Army medic in various medical units and evacuation hospitals in South Vietnam from 1966-69. Gessler served as an Army Airborne jump instructor, aka “Black Hat,” prior to deployment to Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam where he served in various capacities in operations of supply convoys, from gunner to truck driver from 1968-1971. Hering Jr. served as a U.S. Army teletype repairman in Pleiku, South Vietnam from 1969-1971. Hering continued his military service until retirement in 1986.
While each of the Lincoln County veterans attending Monday’s flight served in various areas of military expertise, all seemed to agree one key concept of the flight; sheer excitement.
“My sister Cindy learned of the Honor Flight from Mr. James Campbell (organization co-founder) and mentioned my name back in 2014,” Benzinger explained.
“I had known about it for a while before that and was so excited to find out I was going to be on Monday’s flight back in January. It’s such a wonderful thing this organization is doing. It literally brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it.”
Gessler heard of the organization through contacts at the VFW and saw the flight as a chance to possibly compensate for past experience.
“I’m really looking forward to the trip. I’m hoping to make up for a bad experience. Everyone I know went over there together as a unit. I, on the other hand, went to Vietnam alone and came home alone,” the 66-year-old Tomahawk native said. “I didn’t have the camaraderie that others had, it is what it is and just the way things ended up. I didn’t have a good experience coming home in ’71. We flew into Seattle and all the things you hear now about people protesting, spitting on us and so on… that’s what was going on. We stripped off our uniforms as quick as we could so we didn’t draw attention to ourselves.
“People just weren’t very good to us. I’m looking forward to finally having that sense of camaraderie with other vets. I’m looking forward to having a very positive experience, I’m excited for it.”
Hering’s excitement for the trip appeared to be two-fold; excited to see the various memorials but also to honor the excitement and last wishes of his late wife.
“My late wife Doreen found about the Honor Flight back in 2013 and the minute she mentioned it I was excited!” he explains. “It was something I wanted to be a part of from the start. I lost her this past September due to medical issues she had been suffering from for a while. Even though she is gone now, I know she will be watching over me on Monday. She shared my excitement about this trip right up until the end. I wish she could be there with me but I know she will be watching and smiling every step of the way.”
According to Campbell, himself a native of Merrill, the roots of the Wausau based organization date back to 2007.
“It all started with a conversation between a colleague and I, discussing how we could get our veterans out to Washington to see their respective memorials,” the retired US Marine aviator explains. “I decided it was something I wanted to pursue when I retired and following a flight in which I served as a guardian in 2009, I began looking into it further.”
Shortly after that flight, Campbell was contacted by fellow co-founder Mike Thompson.
“Mike had the same idea I had and contacted the national Honor Flight headquarters. They told him I was already involved and he eventually contacted me. We went to work getting the paperwork organized, raising the $85,000 needed for the first flight and coming up with a name.”
As Campbell further explains, the title “Never Forgotten” is specific to the Wausau organization and was chosen due to the emotional and powerful message the name carries.
The first Never Forgotten Honor Flight took off from Central Wisconsin Airport April 27, 2010 and as of Monday morning’s flight, the organization has served 2,098 World War II and Korean War veterans.
“To say my work with the organization is rewarding would be an incredible understatement,” Campbell adds. “It’s hard to put into words. To see our veterans recognized, enjoy themselves and most of all, open up to their family members about their service is what it’s all about.”
As a member of local media and representing the Merrill Foto News, I was invited to tag along with Flight 23 of the Never Forgotten organization Monday morning and met veteran guardians as they were the first to arrive at CWA, checking in at a bright and early 4:30 a.m.
Veterans soon followed and joined one another in enjoying refreshments, courtesy of a large group of volunteers, as well as meeting and conversing with fellow veterans and guardians.
Boarding opened at 6:15 and by 6:45 a.m., Sun Country Airlines flight 8604 was rolling down the tarmac and headed into a sunny, cloudless sky; bound for Dulles International Airport-Dulles, VA.
Just past 9 a.m., the first NFHF veterans and guardians arrived at the Dulles Terminal and suddenly found themselves greeted with a warm welcome by over 20 people of various ages, bearing signs with various slogans including “Welcome Heroes,” “Welcome Wisconsin Veterans” and “We love our veterans.”
Greeters eagerly approached the veterans, doling out words of praise and hugs.
Benzinger’s expression was that of sheer surprise upon the greeting, as was that of Vietnam infantry veteran Greg Reed of Hancock, Wis.
“Oh man, I was not expecting that!” Benzinger said, his voice wavering a bit. “I don’t know what to say, ya know. It’s amazing! It’s so wonderful. I don’t know how to explain it. We just didn’t get that sort of thing when we came home back then. People weren’t very happy with us. I just did not expect that when I came off the plane.”
“It was a rough time back then, we spent a lot of time out in the jungle. As infantry, we were out more time than we were in. Then when we came home, it was really hard, too. People didn’t like us and they showed it. But to come off the plane to this…,” he explains, his voice also trembling a bit. “It makes up for what happened before. I never thought I would ever be welcomed like this. It’s been 46 years but I love it. I really, really do.”
Gessler also wore a broad ear-to-ear smile and shared the sentiments of his comrades.
“I was hoping this would be a positive experience and that was just amazing. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it,” he said.
Following a short break, we proceeded to board comfortable charter buses for our first stop at the Abraham Lincoln, Vietnam and Korean War memorials.
As we crossed the Arlington Bridge into Washington, we were soon greeted by two units of the United States Park Police. While one motorcycle unit took the lead of our three-bus convoy, another unit took the flank and led the way in the form of a police escort with lights and siren activated, paving the way through heavy traffic to our destination.
After an hour of sight-seeing, we once again boarded the buses for the WWII Memorial, followed by the Iwo Jima memorial and Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial.
Aside from a rather unforgiving sun and temperatures topping 87 degrees, not a single complaint was heard.
Spirits remained high throughout the tour as veterans conversed amongst themselves, swapping stories of families, military service and seemingly everything in between.
Perhaps the most solemn and attention-grabbing events of the afternoon was that of witnessing the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. For the entire afternoon, the group had been abuzz with anticipation and excitement, however that all quieted rather abruptly as is expected at the sacred ground.
Following the ceremony, it was on to the Air Force Memorial for dinner before heading back to Dulles International for the 8:45 p.m. return flight to CWA.
“Everything was great, I just can’t pick out anything in particular,” John Friske stated prior to boarding the return flight to Mosinee. “Ya know, I think what I liked the most of all, was all the folks who volunteered to make this happen. At the airports, the doctors and helpers on the plane, they are who really make this wonderful. It’s been a long day but it was worth it. I’ll never forget it.”