On this Memorial Day we remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice to their country.
From World War II, Korea and Vietnam, 85 Tri-State veterans had the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. on the 10th Honor Flight of Southern Indiana.
There they saw memorials dedicated to them and their fallen brothers and sisters.
Also on board, our reporter Amelia Young. She shares their experience in this special report.
“What time was I up? 4:00,” said one veteran who was wide awake at Evansville Regional Airport at 5:30 a.m.
“2:45 I think,” said another.
The vets were up early, mostly because their excitement got the best of their sleep.
As the vets boarded, Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke greeted them “Enjoy your flight. Thanks for your service.”
With guardians by their side they walk with a pep in their step, loading one by one, onto a plane that would take them on the trip of a lifetime.
“I’m amazed this many people will go through this much work for someone like me,” said veteran Bob Buchanan who was also celebrating his birthday that fell on the same day as the flight.
The plane was decked out in red, white and blue decor all for them.
“It means everything in the world to me,” said veteran James Hayes.
A water cannon salute greeted the heroes on board as they landed in Washington D.C.
In the distance they could hear cheering and music. It was from a welcome parade none of the vets expected. All unfamiliar faces of all ages were in the crowd there to say thank you.
“Thank you for your service,” said congressman Larry Bucshon as he greeted veterans in front of the WWII memorial. Retired Senator Bob Dole was also there to shake hands.
Behind them, hundreds of strangers who greeted the heroes at their first stop.
This was the first time WWII veteran Melvin Romero is laying eyes on a memorial dedicated to him, and so many like him who were uncertain if they’d make it back.
“This is outstanding it’s really a thrill. I never thought I’d ever get to see this,” said Romero.
It’s here he remembers friends who never came home.
“I had a lot of friends that were in Batan when the war started. They were all captured. They were older than me, grew up in my neighborhood.”
He walked through the memorial in silence to take it all in.
Their next stop was to see the Lincoln, Vietnam and Korea war memorials.
Strangers, again, rushed to greet the veterans. This time it was to greet Vietnam veteran Forrest Burton at the wall to find his brother’s names.
After some searching, the sight of the names brought him to tears. “We were together over there and we got split up that’s when he was shot down, taking off to come home.”
Burton was comforted by fellow veterans. He has seen the wall before, but this time it hit him as he was unsure if he’d ever be back.
“It hurt worse than it ever has because all my memories of us together came back.” He says the visit brought closure, not for the war but for their deaths.
The veterans ended the day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, filing in one by one in silence to watch the changing of the guard.
In the blink of an eye it was time for the veterans to head home. It was a long, emotional day topped off with mail call as the veterans spent the last minutes of their journey reading letters from home.
The veterans say meeting so many strangers thanking them for their service blew them away as many never received any appreciation for their time as a soldier.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Rollin Simpson.
“It’s so hard to understand that all these people are here for us,” said Burton.
Korean veteran Charles Webster said the amount of appreciation he received on the trip was hard to accept.
“Just feel like it’s hard to accept the praise people give you. You feel like they should have gotten it.”
But Webster remembers the ultimate sacrifice men and women gave for their country. He accepted the thank you’s on their behalf. “Just makes me want to cry. I haven’t had anything touch me like that in a long time.”
And as the heroes made their way back to their homes and regular life, this trip, the memories, the faces and the handshakes are with them forever.
“I’ll remember it til I die,” said Webster.