It was only a day — a long one at that — but from 4 a.m. to midnight on Sept. 8, four Delaware County veterans received first-class treatment befitting their status as American heroes.
The men, all at least 85 years of age or older, were part of a group of 84 veterans who took part in Honor Flight Columbus’ 90th mission to Washington, D.C. As with every trip, each veteran was flown free of charge to the nation’s capital to visit the memorial dedicated to the war in which they fought in or served during.
Three of the men who took part in Saturday’s trip reside in Willow Brook Christian Communities in Delaware: Lee Siegwald, a World War II U.S. Army veteran; Bill Warner, a Korean War U.S. Marine Corps veteran; and Bob Rietz, a Korean War U.S. Army veteran.
The trio said they had visited Washington, D.C. prior to Saturday’s trip, but it was decades ago and none of them had the chance to see the memorial dedicated to the men and women they served alongside in defense of the freedoms Americans have long enjoyed.
When asked what the experience was like to visit the World War II Memorial, Siegwald started off by noting, “There was not a lot of talking afterwards.”
Siegwald then noted expressing how he felt at that very moment was difficult to describe.
“I think, in my opinion, everybody has a different feeling,” he said. “Awe is certainly part of it. If you don’t have respect for somebody who was in this war with you, you don’t have much respect for manhood, really. That certainly came over me.
“If it weren’t for the luck of the draw or for the grace of God, I could have been one of those on that sign there. All of that rushed through me, and I’m not sure I know the word to use — amazement, awe. I just sort of felt like I was there with those guys,” Siegwald said.
As for the visit to the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Rietz and Warner both were left with memories they soon won’t forget.
“The memorial is extremely impressive with all the statues that they created to show guys coming out of the (rice paddies of Korea),” Rietz said. “They are beautiful statues.”
Warner, on the other hand, was grateful to not only see the memorial, but to speak with a former Republican presidential nominee.
“This was my best moment,” Warner said as he slid his cell phone across the table. On the screen was a picture of him and Bob Dole.
“He said to me, ‘Hey old-timer. How old are you?’ I told him I was 90, and he said, ‘I have five years on you.’
“There was such a long line of people wanting to meet him that he didn’t have a lot of time to chat with anybody,” Warner added.
As for getting to be around 80-plus other veterans along on the trip, the men said they enjoyed the comradery.
Siegwald added visiting with other WWII veterans is something he doesn’t take lightly considering the number of his fellow comrades alive today continues to dwindle daily.
“It was a good get together,” he said. “Every time you see a group of your friends or anything like that, it is always less people than it was the time before. That’s the sad part.”
Letters pour in
One part of the daylong trip the men weren’t expecting was a surprise mail call, something many soldiers looked forward to during their time in the service.
While on the plane back to Columbus, one by one, the veterans heard their names called as their hands were quickly filled with letters upon letters from not only family members, but also from complete strangers.
Warner said his family all wrote to him, and he even received letters from children that were written in crayon.
“The mail just kept coming and coming, which was a very good feeling,” he said.
Siegwald said he didn’t open any of the letters until he got home, while Rietz said he read a few on the plane.
“I ended up spending a couple hours the next day reading all of them,” Rietz added. “One of the letters I read was from someone in Mississippi. It came as a complete surprise. Everybody showed gratitude in their letters.”
A heroes’ welcome
Moments after the plane touched down at John Glenn Columbus International Airport, many of the veterans were overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who showed up just to thank them for their service.
“We didn’t get back until 10 p.m., but the airport was lined with people,” Warner said. “There had to be thousands of people. We got there at 10 p.m., and then we celebrated a couple more hours after that.”
Siegwald was shocked to see so many people find the time on a Saturday night to welcome the veterans home.
“I was really impressed by the turnout of the people who met us at the airport and shook our hands,” he said. “There were 5-year-olds, mailmen, and other Army personnel. It just blew my mind.
“I knew there were people who cared about the flight, but I believe there are more people who are really interested than give us any impression that they are interested. Seeing that group, I think that would be typical of America. I hope to God it is. They were from all walks of life and all ages. It made me feel pretty good,” Siegwald added.
Unfortunately, Siegwald said he somehow missed getting hugged and kissed by the ladies who came prepared with their bright red lipstick.
Warner and Rietz kept quiet on the matter, but did say they saw some veterans with red lipstick on their cheeks.
Central Ohio gives back
Julie Bardelang-Wolf, life enrichment coordinator at Willow Brook Christian Communities, helps coordinate the Columbus Honor Flight trips involving residents of Willow Brook. To date, she said close to 50 veterans from Willow Brook have gone on the trip to Washington, D.C., which costs Columbus Honor Flight $65,000 per flight. She added the nonprofit organization would not be able to do what it does for veterans without monetary donations and help from countless volunteers.
“I’m one of 1,200 volunteers for Honor Flight who make it happen here in Columbus,” Bardelang-Wolf said. “The veterans don’t spend one dime. Everything is provided. It’s our way of saying, ‘Thank you.’”
The trio of veterans from Willow Brook unanimously agreed the trip was “very well organized.”
“The volunteers are so dedicated to give back,” Siegwald said. “It isn’t like they just handed you a cup of coffee. It was so much more than that.”
Delaware Mayor Carolyn Kay Riggle, who attended her 16th flight as a guardian on the trip, said Honor Flight Columbus has been around for over a decade and has taken 5,566 veterans to Washington, D.C.
She added of the 84 veterans who went on the Sept. 8 trip, 13 served in WWII, 42 in the Korean War, 25 in the Vietnam War, and four in both the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Rietz said the trip left him with “an awfully good feeling.”
“So many people worked so hard to make it a meaningful experience for us,” he added.
Warner said he was thankful to all the volunteers, some of whom he didn’t know were volunteering their time to Honor Flight Columbus.
“Something that surprised me is the entire flight with Southwest Airlines, from pilots to the crew and even medical people, they were all people who donated their time,” he said.
Siegwald summed up the daylong trip by saying events like this bring back many memories, which these days is all he really has left.
“You remember every minute of your time in the service like when you decided to enlist and how old you were,” he said.
Contact Joshua Keeran at 740-413-0900. Follow The Delaware Gazette on Twitter @delgazette. Like The Gazette on Facebook.