By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– Though they have drifted through the jungles of Panama, tramped along the 38th parallel between North and South Korea, and flown over the mountains of Japan, three North Liberty residents say their recent flights to Washington, D.C., was for each of them the trip of a lifetime.
Three veterans who live at North Liberty Living Center were chosen to participate in an Eastern Iowa Honor Flight, a program that flies veterans and guardians– attendants who help them travel– to Washington to tour the monuments and memorials in the nation’s capital. Veterans Wayne Kahler and Kenneth Weaver went in September, and veteran Bob Gideon flew in June 2012.
Kahler and Weaver offered a slideshow presentation of their trip to their fellow residents and guests at North Liberty Living Center last month, as Gideon looked on and offered his own remembrances and comments.
Remarkably, these men who risked life and limb in service of their country were full of nothing but gratitude to have been given the experience.
Both Weaver and Kahler served in the Army during the Korean Conflict: Kahler joined just two months after his 17th birthday, in 1949.
“When I got out, was 20, and it was an election year, but I wasn’t old enough to vote,” he said.
Weaver, now 83, also joined the U.S. Army when he was quite young. The day he boarded a ship in New York City and sailed toward the Panama Canal, he left behind his wife and their eight-day-old son.
“I was on the ship for 33 days,” he said. Weaver was stationed mostly at air bases, he said, that sometimes became targets for enemy fire. Though he wrote frequently to his wife, Shirlene, he never shared much about the details of his duty in Korea.
“I didn’t even know he was up on the front lines,” Shirlene said. “He wrote and wrote to me, but he never told me. I never would have guessed it.”
Kahler said he didn’t share his feelings on his war experience much, either; at least, outwardly. He was among the troops who conducted an assault landing at Inchon on Sept. 15, 1950,
“We never had any training for anything like that,” Kahler said. “We climbed down the ropes on the side of the ship and got on the landing barges at midnight. The big battleship Missouri was beside us, shooting shells around us. You had a gun and a radio, and that was it. I never was scared of anything, but I was young. After I got out, it took me six years to get over it. I cried a lot.”
Weaver said he has great empathy for the young men and women who have been fighting– and continue to fight– today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Soldiers now, they don’t have the slightest idea what they are going to go through,” he said. “You can talk and talk about it, but people just don’t understand until they go through it.”
“It’s tough fighting somebody else’s war in a foreign country, and you don’t know who your enemy is,” said Weaver.
The years have both worn some of the rough edges hewn by war, and also given them a deeper insight into true appreciation.
That’s why the memorials in the nation’s capital mean so much to them and the thousands of other veterans who come to see them daily, in part through the efforts of organizations like Eastern Iowa Honor Flight.
“The Korean monument is very impressive,” Gideon said. He also joined the service when he was barely 17, was in the Army Airborne that flew over Japan in World War II. “The ghostly figures you see there are on the 38th parallel. There are 19 of them, and the reflection of them is on the wall behind them.”
It represents the juncture in the war when General MacArthur wanted troops to cross into China to finish the war, but President Truman wouldn’t allow it, Gideon said. Then he looked at Kahler.
“And you were there,” Gideon said to him.
“I was there,” Kahler said.
“I was up to the interior border, and MacArthur came up; it was on Thanksgiving day, 1950. He said, ‘well boys, I guess this is the end of it. I wanted to go on and Truman said no’” Kahler recalled.
“Anyway,” he added, “we got a hot lunch out of it.”
The veterans were also able to see the National WWII Memorial, the Air Force memorial– three curving, 250 ft. columns of sleek titanium that shoot skyward– the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial, the Marine Corp Memorial– which depicts the soldiers raising the American flag at Iwo Jima– memorials to presidents Franklin and Roosevelt, and Arlington National Cemetery, with its 1,100 acres of graves, where the most impressive sight of the trip turned out to be the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“They are there 24/7,” Kahler said. “They never close it, even in bad weather. And they have to concentrate so hard you are not allowed to talk. It’s really something to see.”
Though these gentlemen all fought in wars that came before the 1960s, they all agreed the Vietnam Veterans memorial probably had the most impact.
“There is something about that wall that is more memorable than anything else you see,” Gideon said. “The World War II wall represents 420,000 men and women killed or missing. That’s really something, but it doesn’t make an impact on you like that wall.”
During Gideon’s 2012 trip, his Honor Flight guardian was a Vietnam veteran who had been assigned to a helicopter search and rescue team.
“Their job was to go down and pick up those, living or dead, who were left in Vietnam,” Gideon said. “Once he had to go in and find 12 men. He had a list of the names of every one of those men, and I don’t know how he did it, but he found their names on that wall.”
Gideon paused for a moment.
“Two of my students’ names were on that wall,” he said.
The trip wasn’t always somber, the veterans said, but with only one day to pack in all the sights, trip organizers kept the tour group to a tight schedule. There was always time for photos, though, and an opportunity for people to thank the veterans for their service.
When they arrived in Washington, D.C., they were greeted often by people saying thank you. When they returned home, a welcoming party was held in their honor at the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids.
Kahler said he never dreamed the big airport reception was in the veterans’ honor. “I said to my son, ‘What’s going on? It sounds like a band. Are they having a concert here or something?’” Kahler laughed.
“There were bikers, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the Knights of Columbus,” Kahler continued. “D.C. was like that too. It makes you feel good.”
“They call it an honor flight, and it is,” Weaver agreed.
Shirlene Weaver said the homecoming was an emotional experience for many.
“When the fellows got off the plane, there were so many tears,” said Shirlene. “Some of them couldn’t stop crying.”
Wayne Kahler said he was grateful he had made the trip.
“I am thankful we made it this long; so many of them didn’t get a chance,” he said. “When you walk through there and see the names of people who gave their lives… it feels overwhelming.”
A year later, Gideon is still grateful as well.
“I can’t think the Honor Flight enough for doing this,” said Gideon. “And those who contribute to the flight.”
Kahler said he initially did not want to make the trip, but was convinced by his family to go.
“I’m so very glad I went,” Kahler said. “It’s awesome. Most of the monuments are so beautiful. That Korean monument… it’s just the way it was. The uniforms, the way they are walking… it was just like being there.”