‘All these gentlemen in red are veterans’

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On any given day, the nation’s capital is thick with tourists.

Groups from every corner of the world walk well-worn paths from monument to monument absorbing history through their point-and-shoot cameras.

In this environment stepped a red-hatted group of Iowa octogenarian would seemingly draw no notice.

“Why,” a little girl asked the man leading her through the National World War II Memorial, “are those guys all wearing red?”

“All these gentlemen in red are veterans,” he said, before leading her away.

Though strangers in the city, the veterans who participated in Saturday’s Brushy Creek Area Honor Flight received a warm welcome wherever they paused.

Schoolchildren, and their parents, greeted the touring vets like family.

Time and again, handshakes and hugs were punctuated by a common refrain: “Thank you for your service,”

Saturday’s Honor Flight was the sixth to take off from Fort Dodge since 2010.

More than 100 veterans of World War II and the Korean War traveled to Washington D.C. with specially appointed guardians for a look at the monuments commemorating the conflicts in which they served.

The flight was scheduled to take off at 6:45 a.m., with preflight processing to begin at 5:30 a.m.

By 5 a.m. the south hangar of the Fort Dodge Regional Airport was full of the waiting vets.

Family and friends, visible from the runway, cheerfully waved goodbye to the departing 737 with flags and banners.

But the fanfare was just beginning.

Upon arrival at Dulles International Airport, a brass ensemble from the U.S. Air Force, played patriotic tunes as volunteers of the D.C.-based Honor Flight Ground Crew welcomed the Brushy Creek vets.

“It’s an honor to be here,” said Deborah Pollard, a retired veteran of the air force from Clifton, Va.

“When a veteran dies, a library closes.”

Since the beginning, organizers of the Brushy Creek Honor Flight have urged vets to share their experiences with their families.

As they made their day-long tour, the veterans traded stories and memories.

Charles Lombard made his first visit to the Lincoln Memorial since 1952.

At the time, Lombard, an Army veteran from Fort Dodge, was completing basic training at Camp Pickett, Va. before shipping out as a medic. He had a pass and traveled to Washington D.C.

“I came on a Sunday … there was nobody here,” he said, with a laugh.

Lombard was sent to South Korea, where he was assigned to a medical clearing company at an airbase near Seoul.

“We would load wounded onto planes and send them to hospitals in Japan,” he said.

When the conflict ended in armistice in 1953, Lombard served close to the 38th parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea.

“I was in a forward platoon,” he said.

As such, Lombard was responsible for getting critically injured troops onto special trains to transport them to field hospitals for further treatment.

During the Korean War, Roger Hepp, of Rockwell City, was assigned to an Army infantry unit and was shipped to Japan.

“We cleaned rifles all the way over,” he said “When we got to Japan, they put us all in a large building and asked for volunteers to be court reporters, clerks and typists,”

Hepp decided to break an old soldier’s rule: He raised his hand to volunteer.

Hepp was assigned to the stockade at Eighth Army Headquarters, processing paperwork for soldiers who were charged with criminal infractions.

“They would pass through there before we sent them home,” said Hepp.

After the war, Hepp came home to Calhoun County, where he farmed until retiring about 15 years ago.

Though only recently allowed to serve in combat, women have long served in the armed forces.

Among women who have served the country are Corrine Canon, of Fort Dodge. Canon is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, where she served as a flight attendant.

“A lot of people don’t know we had those,” she said.

Her duties included accompanying personnel as they traveled to bases overseas.

Though the majority of veterans on the flight served in Korea, several World War II veterans were also aboard.

Roland Conlon, of Fort Dodge, recalled his service in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1946.

“I was stationed on Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides,” he said. “They transported wounded from the front to the hospital there.”

John Hodges, of Laurens, accrued a unique distinction during his time in the U.S. Army Air Forces.

“I flew over both oceans and never landed on the other side,” said Hodges, who tested planes as a mechanic.

After the war, Hodges practiced medicine for 53 years and spent 38 years on the Board of Trustees of Iowa Central Community College, whose field house now bears his name.

As the trip wound down, Honor Flight vets paid their respects to thousands of their fallen comrades at Arlington National Cemetery.

The final stop was the Marine Corps War Memorial, which depicts the iconic scene of U.S. Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi during the battle of Iwo Jima in February 1945.

At the memorial, Marine Maj. Charles O’Neill offered a formal thank you to those who served.

O’Neill, a veteran of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, told the vets about how, upon his return, he heard about the Honor Flight program from his mother.

When the opportunity to speak to an Honor Flight group came up, O’Neill said he was excited to volunteer.

The honor, O’Neill said, was all his.

“I stand today before giants,” he said. “You who are here today changed the course of history.”

Honor Flights returning to Fort Dodge are met by cheering crowds.

Hundreds – dwarfing previous welcome back events – gathered at the airport.

Despite chilly temperatures, banners and flags waved proudly, with yells and clapping echoing from the time the first vet left the plane to the last.

Organizers requested 20 Fort Dodge Senior High band members come to provide music.

Fifty students volunteered.

The effort of volunteers is what makes the Honor Flight program possible, said Ron Newsum, who leads the Brushy Creek Area Honor Flight board.

Local efforts are affiliated with and supported by the national Honor Flight Network, which helps provide services on the ground in Washington D.C.

Among those who embody the best of what the program is about is Dave Benbennick of Reston, Va.

Benbennick has met all six Brushy Creek Honor Flights upon arrival in Washington, providing water and medical oxygen to any vet who needs it at no charge.

“I’ve met 350 Honor Flights so far,” he said.

As with everybody who volunteers to support the program, Benbennick said he sees his work as a way to give back to those who fought for freedom.

“My father fought at the Battle of the Bulge,” he said, referring to one of the deadliest battles of World War II. “I see him in every veteran who comes through.”