Friday, September 23, 2016

‘A day so rich in respect, dignity and camaraderie’: What it’s like to be an Honor Flight guardian

Kevin Harrison, electric distribution controller – electric operations at We Energies, volunteered to be a guardian during the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight on Sept. 17. A retired member of U.S. Special Operations Forces himself, who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan as a senior medic from 2005 to 2010, he wrote this summary of the experiences throughout the Honor Flight trip.

Robert Bob Schaefer and Kevin Harrison.
From the moment of our departure, escorted by dual P-40 Warhawk 1940-era airplanes, to the parade through General Mitchell Airport upon our return, the 35th Stars and Stripes Honor Flight was chock-full of thoughtful, well-orchestrated and moving activities. The responsibility of serving as guardian for Robert “Bob” Schaefer, an 85-year-old Korean War Army medic, was not a burden, but an honor. Though he never expressed to me the impact of the journey that day, it was apparent on several occasions that he was awed by the experience.

The monuments Bob most wanted to see were the Korean War Veterans Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery, but on this day we saw far more than that. Our stops also included the World War II Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Marine Corps War Memorial and the United States Air Force Memorial as we coasted through Washington, D.C., on buses escorted by local police. As we toured all of the memorials, the amount of reverence for these veterans was palpable.

The Changing of the Guard ritual performed by 3rd Infantry Regiment soldiers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was especially impressive in its meticulously coordinated movements. The absolute silence made every movement stand out and added to the chilling effect of the ceremony itself. 

The 88 veterans who participated in the Stars and Stripes 
Honor Flight on Sept. 17 in front of the Franklin Delano 
Roosevelt Memorial. 
Every aspect of the journey was well-considered by the organizers, but their great accomplishment was the reception upon returning to Milwaukee. The airport terminal was packed with people who had come to show support for those who had given so much for their nation. It was overwhelmingly powerful for me as much as it was for Bob.

While I was driving Bob home at the end of the day, he was stunned by how many people had shown up to pay homage to the veterans. “How did they get so many people to show up?” he asked, and I replied, “They just told people that there was an opportunity to thank veterans, and all of these people showed up. That is how much your service still means to us.”

“Well, it was almost too much,” he said.

The journey was especially profound for me, as a veteran myself, looking at Bob make fast friends with the other veterans – the stories shared, the jokes told and, on occasion, the tears shed. As I stood in front of the collected group while they were posing for a group picture, I reflected for a moment on the spirit of service still alive today, and hoped that all veterans could someday be rewarded with a day so rich in respect, dignity and camaraderie.

De oppresso liber,*

Kevin Harrison

* De oppresso liber, often translated as “to free from oppression,” is the motto of the United States Army Special Forces.

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