Area veterans participate in recent Honor Flight

By : 
KRISTIN BURDEY
TRI-COUNTY RECORD

This weekend the nation will unite to recognize servicemen and women on Veteran’s Day. But on September 15,  local veterans Ben Wenzel and Paul Skalet enjoyed an even greater honor, when they were selected to participate in a national Honor Flight.

The Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit organization created with the sole purpose of honoring the sacrifices of America’s veterans, has served more than 200,000 veterans since its inception in 2005. According to their website, their mission is such: To transport America’s Veterans to Washington, DC to visit those memorials dedicated to honoring the service and sacrifices of themselves and their friends.

Wenzel and Skalet first learned of the Honor Flight Network from friend Jim Severtson about five years ago. Severtson was to accompany his father, Arnie Severtson, a veteran of the Korean War, on an Honor Flight as a guardian. All Honor Flight participants are paired with a guardian, who accompanies the veteran throughout the day.

Unfortunately, Arnie passed away before the date arrived. The men Arnie had signed up with, Les Tapp and Robert Koljord, asked Severtson to accompany them as Koljord’s guardian. Severtson accepted, humbled to take part in the flight that would have honored his father. The experience was so rewarding that not only did Severtson suggest it to his friends back home, he also volunteered to be a guardian for future flights.

History

Skalet graduated from Peterson High School in 1960, and joined the Army Reserves in 1964. He served six months active duty at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri and remained in the Reserves until 1970. Paul and wife Sandy raised four boys, and are currently enjoying their grandchildren.

Wenzel was drafted into the army shortly after graduating from Lewiston High School in 1966. He attended Basic Training at Fort Benning, Georgia.  The Advanced Training that he received at Fort Gordon, Georgia prepared him for the Signal Corps, a branch of the Army responsible for military communication. Wenzel’s first duty station was at Huachuca, Arizona, one of the oldest military bases in the country.

In January of 1967 Wenzel reported for duty in Vietnam, stationed on the outskirts of Saigon, where he worked in a boat repair center. As a communications specialist, Wenzel was on the cutting edge of the day’s technology, able to send a message around the world in twenty minutes. After remaining in the war-torn country for over a year, Wenzel returned home to America, and was discharged out of Fort Hood, Texas.

The Honor Flight

Skalet and Wenzel were notified earlier this year that they had been selected for a spot on the September 15th Honor Flight, five years after filling out a request. There is a considerable waiting list to participate, as WWII vets and those with terminal illness are given priority. The cost for each flight ranges from $30,000 to $100 000, depending on size. However, the cost for each veteran to participate is completely free.

When the big day arrived, the men reported to the La Crosse Airport early in the morning, boardin the plane along with one hundred other veterans from the region. After a two-hour flight, they landed at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington, DC, where they were given the “Presidential Welcome” received by visiting dignitaries, with sprays of water arching over the plane. As the servicemen and women disembarked, they were greeted by a crowd of grateful Americans, including many students.

The group then divided up onto one of four buses-Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, or Delta, and toured the city with a police escort, the procession unimpeded by traffic.

Their first stop was at the WWII Memorial, which sits on the National Mall flanked by the Washington Memorial to the east and the Lincoln Memorial to the west. The group then visited the Korean War Veteran’s Memorial, a striking display containing 19 stainless steel statues representing members of the various branches of the military.

The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, best known for the wall of names, was the next stop. The group stopped for a picture in front of the famed Iwo Jima Memorial at the Marine Corps War Memorial. The last stop in the city was at the Air Force Memorial, which sits on a knoll above the Pentagon.

For both Wenzel and Skalet, the highlight of the trip was their visit to the Arlington National Cemetery, home to the Tomb of the Unknowns. There is always a soldier guarding the tomb, and the precise movements of his routine are based on the number twenty-one, as a twenty-one-gun salute is the highest military honor that can be bestowed. The soldier on duty continues his meticulous routine until relieved of duty at the changing of the guard, a ceremony the men were able to observe. “It was sobering,” Wenzel related. “No one spoke while we were there.”

The men and women returned to the airport, flying out around suppertime, and receiving special gifts on the return trip that had been kept secret.

When they arrived back in La Crosse around 9:00 pm, the group was met with quite a surprise: a hangar filled with people welcoming them home, cheering and holding signs like “Hometown Heroes” and “Thanks for keeping us free.” There were friends and family, eagerly awaiting the chance to embrace their beloved heroes. Patriotic songs of celebration were played by bands and sung by choirs, followed by a magnificent fireworks display. For these veterans, they finally received the hero’s welcome they were due.

“There wasn’t such a thing as a homecoming back then,” recalled Wenzel of the era in which he served, a stark contrast to the jubilation which surrounded them on this special night.  Though Wenzel did not seek out the spotlight, he would recommend the Honor Flight experience to all of his fellow servicemen and women. “You don’t go into the service for your own honor- you do it for your country. I’m proud to have served. It’s just too bad they didn’t get this welcome sixty years ago.”