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Cedar Valley veterans experience emotional day on Honor Flight

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Veterans and their chaperones arrive at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

WATERLOO – When you encounter the name of someone you knew on “The Wall,” it can result in an unexpected burst of emotion.

Diedrich Ulrich, an Army veteran of the Vietnam era, saw the names of three hometown friends on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but one really hit him hard.

“It’s overwhelming, it really is,” he said.

He lost his friend, Roger Hites of Clarksville, during the Vietnam War, and seeing his name brought back memories of times spent together.

“He had a baby he never saw,” Ulrich said. “He volunteered to help on a rescue mission when he was killed, and he was planning to head home in two weeks.”

Ulrich, of Allison, was one of 92 Northeast Iowa veterans who arrived at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on Wednesday at 8:39 a.m. aboard the 26th Sullivan-Hartogh-Davis Cedar Valley Honor Flight. They traveled to the nation’s capital to visit several memorials and Arlington National Cemetery.

The first stop was the World War II Memorial, marking the continuation of a long-standing tradition associated with the Cedar Valley Honor Flights since their beginning.

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Veterans search for names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall on Wednesday in Washington, D.C. 

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. David Cole and his wife, Connie, both of whom graduated from Waterloo West High in 1959, greeted the veterans as they have the previous 25 classes.

“I’d cancel anything on my schedule to meet them,” he said. “An Honor Flight costs about $100,000. To raise that kind of money within the local community, it’s just a tribute to Iowans.”

The group visited the Lincoln, Korean and Vietnam memorials and Arlington National Cemetery. By 2 p.m., the group had arrived at its latest destination, the Marine Corps War Memorial, when it started pouring rain. The veterans later continued the tour at the Air Force Memorial.

Also on the trip, Army veterans Robert Yuska, Joe Demuth, Ronald Strottman, Larry Oltrogge and Garylee Thurn rediscovered the friendship they founded while members of the 289th Ordnance at the U.S. Army Reserve Center in Waterloo in the 1960s.

“I was amazed that we were on the same tour, but we didn’t know we were on the same bus until today,” Demuth said.

A Boeing 737-800 carrying area veterans who served during the Vietnam and Korean War eras took off from Waterloo Regional Airport at 6:48 a.m., resuming local Honor Flights after an interruption due to the pandemic.

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Veterans visited the Lincoln Memorial on the 26th Cedar Valley Honor Flight.

The veterans hailed from in and around the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area, with towns such as LaPorte City, Hudson, Greene, Independence and Jesup represented.

After being greeted by the brigadier general, veterans experienced many of the highlights they missed when last year’s flight was canceled due to COVID-19.

Some created rubbings of names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, while others collected stamps of the memorial names with the date of the day visited.

Most watched the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery, and saw the 19 stainless steel statues at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, which look real at first glance.

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Veterans were given white caps to commemorate the Honor Flight.  

The chatter began at 5:45 a.m., as the veterans, decked out in red shirts and white caps commemorating the daylong adventure, boarded the plane along with their chaperones.

Asked if he was ready for the trip in the early morning hours, Donald Martin, an Air Force veteran from Waterloo, replied: “You bet. It’s been delayed a year and a half.”

“I just want to see everything,” he added. “I’ve never been to Washington, D.C.”

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Veterans and their chaperones inside Waterloo Regional Airport before taking off for Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

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