WASHINGTON, D.C. — Korean War veteran Edward Johnson has been to the war memorials in Washington, D.C., before.
On Tuesday, though, he visited them alongside his brothers in arms.
Johnson was among nearly 100 Cedar Valley military veterans who arrived before dawn at the Waterloo Regional Airport for a whirlwind day on the 22nd annual Cedar Valley Honor Flight.
Veterans arrived to a hero’s welcome at the Waterloo airport, greeted by a giant American flag hung from a ladder firetruck. When the plane touched down in Baltimore, a water salute over the aircraft welcomed Honor Flight veterans to the city. Inside the terminal, veterans were greeted by U.S. Navy personnel and thunderous applause from airport staff and passengers.
“How many people clapped when we came home? Zero. None,” said Gary Meyer of Garnavillo, who served in Vietnam from 1966-67. “I actually got spit on. But not today. No way.”
The day’s itinerary included visits to the World War II, Vietnam and Korean War memorials, as well as the Lincoln Memorial, Women’s Memorial and United States Air Force Memorial. Also on the tour was a stop at the Arlington National Cemetery for a changing of the guard ceremony.
Waterloo native and Ret. U.S. Army Gen. David Cole greeted veterans at the World War II Memorial.
“I’ve never been to D.C. It’s exciting,” said U.S. Army veteran Jim DeGreif of Independence. “It’s a sad, happy day. The ones who didn’t make it, we wish they were here.”
Johnson, 88, of Waterloo, was one of a dozen Korean War-era veterans on the flight. During three tours from 1947 to 1955, the U.S. Navy veteran received and sent heavy fire on board an aircraft carrier and a destroyer.
“You can’t get scared,” he said. “You’re at war. There’s no time for fear. You have an enemy. If you’re a warrior, you know where your enemy is. You’re busy loading ammo to keep bombarding. You don’t have time for fear.”
Johnson earned seven battle stars for his service.
“I don’t think we can wrap our heads around what you’ve done to keep us free,” Pam Delargardelle, his guardian for the day, told him.
A longtime volunteer at UnityPoint Health-Allen Hospital, Johnson for several years passed on the opportunity to participate in an honor flight. He agreed to go when Delagardelle, Allen Hospital CEO, volunteered to be his guardian for the day.
Emotions ran high at all of the stops. For some Vietnam veterans, visiting the memorial wall of names was too much.
“I don’t want to see it,” said Donald James, of Waterloo. “I’ve got friends on that wall. I don’t know why I’m still here and they aren’t.”
Nearly 90 percent of the veterans on this Honor Flight were Vietnam veterans.
Ron Soppe of Postville couldn’t hold back the tears as he searched for the names of three fallen comrades. Soppe was a combat medic who saw the worst of the worst.
“We were just 19,” he said. “We were just kids.”
Korean War veteran Bob Cowles of Ossian knows he’s one of the lucky ones. A U.S. Army “boots on the ground” soldier, he served at the 38th Parallel.
“At least I made it back alive,” he said.
Some rain off and on throughout the day didn’t matter to the veterans who were in Washington to remember and support one another.
“We are all comrades,” said Mike Markey, of Waterloo, a U.S. Navy aircraft mechanic of the Vietnam era. “Returning from service then, you weren’t welcome. Today we are all welcome here.”
Tuesday’s trip was the second of three Sullivan-Hartogh-Davis Honor Flights scheduled in 2018. The last Honor Flight for this year will be Oct. 23.