“It was one of the most humbling and meaningful experiences of my life. I feel we are here to serve, encourage and care for the needs of others around us, and was so grateful for the opportunity to serve alongside the other We Energies employees who cared for and honored these veterans,” said Joel Burow, manager – CSO economic development, who volunteered as a guardian.
Guardians typically are family members or other members of the public who accompany a veteran for the entire day. As sponsor of the May 11 flight, We Energies was able to provide guardian opportunities for three employees.
‘It was all heartfelt’
Burow’s father served in the Army Air Force during WWII. He contracted polio after the war and was not able to be an Honor Flight participant before his passing. As a guardian on the May 11 flight, Burow was able to honor his dad while helping another veteran with limited mobility whose family couldn’t travel with him. That veteran, named John, was in the Army during the Vietnam War, serving in the communication squad room in Germany and as a motor pool driver.
Neither he nor Burow had been to Washington before, so the two were able to visit the memorials for the first time together, with Burow pushing John’s wheelchair and getting him on and off the bus safely throughout the day.
“He was greeted very affectionately throughout the day, hundreds and hundreds of times, with ‘Thank you for your service,’” Burow described. “You watched the faces of the people conveying that feeling to him, from young children to the elderly, from veteran to veteran. Each and every time it was heartfelt, and it was heartwarming for John to hear. He was very touched and said it was the best day of his life.”
‘Pay it back a little bit’
For Christy Walker, laboratory technician – environmental, May 11 was the first time she served as a guardian after volunteering in other capacities for previous Honor Flights. Many members of her family have served in the military.
“It’s a lot to put on the uniform for the U.S. It’s a lot of responsibility. I wanted to do this to honor that, especially for Vietnam vets,” Walker said. “They did not get the return home they should have. I really feel like it’s an opportunity to pay it back a little bit.”
The veteran she was paired with, Chris, served as a Marine during the Vietnam War but had a hard time connecting with other veterans because he had been stationed in California and Hawaii as an air traffic controller rather than in Vietnam. “I think it helped him connect with the fact that he is a Vietnam veteran and people are grateful for his service no matter what he did,” Walker said.
Because Chris does not have any family, Walker’s dad and aunt, both veterans, wrote letters for him to read during Mail Call on the flight back to Milwaukee. He, along with the other Honor Flight veterans, also received letters from We Energies employees, including Tom Metcalfe, president of We Energies.
‘Somber, emotional and humbling’
Christy Schultz, computer systems specialist – IT services, was assigned as the guardian for Linda, an Army medic stationed in Texas during the Vietnam War.
“Serving during a time when women were not widely accepted in the military, and working with soldiers returning from Vietnam, Linda saw and experienced a different side of the war,” Schultz, an Army veteran herself, explained. Schultz assured Linda that she “had her back” when she was hesitant to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, one of the last memorial visits of the day. Linda eventually decided she wanted to see it.
“To stand beside these men at the Vietnam wall while they touched the names of soldiers lost, with tears streaming down there cheeks, is something that neither Linda nor I will soon forget. It was a very somber, emotional and humbling moment,” Schultz said, adding that Linda was also moved by the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. “It served as a reminder of the important role she played during the Vietnam conflict, and she was speechless each and every time people would come by and thank her for her sacrifice and service.”
In addition to the three guardians, more than a dozen We Energies employees helped at the airport in the morning as corporate volunteers, greeting and directing veterans and guardians, or in the morning and evening as side guardians, accompanying veterans through the terminal. Some employees came in the evening for the welcome home parade through the airport.
"It was a very memorable experience to see and to provide whatever help I could as a volunteer,” said Ron Schildt, designer – CSO major projects design and engineering, who was a corporate volunteer. “These men and women are true heroes, and I was proud to be a very small part in making their special day a reality."
“We had a blast hanging out with the veterans and volunteers. I heard a lot of stories, most of them were funny, some sad,” said Travis Lewein, senior power plant mechanic, who served as a corporate volunteer and came back for the homecoming later that night. “It was electric like always. You can tell that a lot of those boys from Vietnam finally ‘came home’ after 50 years.”
WEC Energy Group employees contributed more than 300 letters and notes for veterans on the May 11 flight, including 175 handmade cards from Ann Wendt, services manager – CSO customer programs, and her teenage daughter.