Cheering crowds, waving flags welcome back Honor Flight veterans

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COLUMBIA - A hundred and ten veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War are now home after an eventful day touring the nation’s capital on Wednesday.

This is the largest group of veterans Central Missouri Honor Flight has sponsored among the 47 trips it has organized since its founding in 2009. The veterans’ buses arrived in Columbia around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday. Families, friends and members of the public were waiting at the Courtyard Marriott hotel to give them a loud and proud “welcome home.”

Community Relations Coordinator for Central Missouri Honor Flight, Shelley Becker, said it was a long day for the veterans, as they left Columbia early Wednesday morning for their flight in St. Louis. She said during the one-day tour in Washington D.C., the veterans visited a number of memorials, such as the WWII Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Battle of Iwo Jima Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknowns.

According to Becker, Central Missouri Honor Flight is an all-volunteer organization that aims to bring veterans to Washington D.C. to visit their memorials. It has flown more than 3,000 veterans to D.C. and usually organizes seven to eight trips every year. She said this is the third trip for this year.

“We take more veterans this time,” Becker said. “We had a flight to ourselves.”

Becker said the homecoming ceremonies at the end of the trips have always been meaningful.

“Some of our veterans didn’t receive a hero’s welcome when they came home [from war],” Becker said. “And this is a way for us to show the veterans that the public does want to thank them for their service, and thank them for the freedom we enjoy today.”

Becker said the welcoming vibes at these ceremonies have been the exact opposite of what some veterans experienced when they returned from their combats years ago.

“Because these veterans, especially the Vietnam veterans, they have needed to have the closure and the healing of hearing someone say ‘Thank you for your service. Welcome home.’ And many of those young men and young women did not receive that,” said Becker.

Leo Martin is a Vietnam War veteran from Eldon, Missouri. 

“We never got a welcome party or anything,” Martin said. “Everybody looked down on you.”   

Martin said during the trip, he had a great time in D.C., and the volunteers really took care of the veterans.

“The food, you know, we had snacks all the time, water, you know, wanna try to keep hydrated,” Martin said. “We got to go down the street in front of the White House, all of that. It was great. It was really great.”

Becker said she wants to thank everyone who showed up to the event for being a part of the veterans’ Honor Flight experience.

“We have the spouses of the families who have been waiting since, you know, 1:45 this morning when they said goodbye to their loved ones,” Becker said. “And we have the public. They drove from all over mid Missouri just to be here. We have veterans who have been on prior Honor Flights, who returned, because they also want to say ‘Thank you. Welcome home.’ Because they know how it felt when they were welcomed home.”

Becker said there were about 300 volunteer motorcyclists from a separate organization that contributed another element of the event.

Central Missouri Honor Flight Riders, they are the motorcyclists who also want to have the honor of escorting the buses in, on their motorcycles, into the loving arms of the families and friends waiting for them here at the hotel,” Becker said.

Becker said the Missouri State Highway Patrol shut down a portion of I-70, and as the veterans’ buses drove past Kingdom City, the volunteer riders joined the group.

According to Becker, Central Missouri Honor Flight has raised over $3 million in donations.

“We take not a single cent from the veterans flying those flights, because they already paid,” Becker said. “They already rode that trip. They served their country.”

Becker said it costs a little over $300 to sponsor a veteran’s trip, and right now, about 500 veterans still remain on the waitlist.