Kewaunee and Algoma veterans visit Washington D.C. on Old Glory Honor Flight
Two Kewaunee County Korean War veterans – Arthur Belter from Kewaunee and Keith Haasch from Algoma – both had one of the most memorable days of their lives recently on an Old Glory Honor Flight.
With 81 other veterans from Northeast Wisconsin, they were flown to Washington, D.C., for a day to visit the war memorials and be recognized by fellow servicemen, citizens and government officials for their service to the United States.
Based in Appleton, Old Glory Honor Flights raises money through donations and fund-raising events to transport World War II and Korean War veterans to see the memorials built in their honor. Neither Belter nor Haasch had previously visited the monuments.
The group’s motto is “It is never too late to say thank you.”
“People come up and shake your hand and say thank you … I’ve never shaken so many hands,” said Belter, who served in the Army from 1952-1954. “It meant a lot.”
After staying in a Candlewood Suites hotel in Appleton at a discounted rate, the veterans left Appleton International Airport at 6:30 a.m. May 11 on a specially chartered flight and arrived at Reagan National Airport at 10:30 a.m. They boarded buses where they were driven by police escort to the first of the memorials – the World War II Memorial. Only one veteran of the group – John Xanos from Appleton – was a World War II veteran; the rest were Korean War veterans.
“The veterans are the only ones to get a police escort in Washington, D.C., other than the president,” said Belter. “They even blocked the intersections for us.”
From there, they ate lunch on the bus, and went to visit the Korean War Memorial where the veterans viewed 38 statues of soldiers, symbolizing the 38th Parallel where the war was fought and the 38 months that the war lasted.
“Never in my experience of being a veteran have I ever been treated so well,” said Belter. “As I was walking back up to the bus, a fellow came up to me to shake my hand and said, ‘I am from South Korea and I want to thank you for your service.'”
In a day full of many emotional moments, Belter said that was his favorite.
They also visited the Vietnam War Memorial, which includes the names of all 58,272 American soldiers who died in that war, half under the age of 22. The final stop was Arlington National Cemetery where they saw the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“The silence that is there can get to you,” said Belter, noting that the guards are only allowed to abandon their posts in the event of an earthquake or tornado.
The “mail call” on the return plane trip, reminiscent of the military mail calls during the veterans’ service, was the most emotional moment for Haasch who served in the Army from 1952-1954.
“They must have had a 1,000 letters for us, and all of the 81 veterans received at least one envelope.” he said. “I had wonderful letters from my wife, children and grandchildren.”
When the plane landed back in Appleton at 8:30 p.m., the veterans were escorted off the plane and waited in the terminal behind a curtain, Haasch said.
“When they opened the curtain, there were more than 1,000 people waiting for us – a band was playing, there were people from church organizations and Girl Scouts handing out cookies.”
.The surprise welcome from the crowd was “very emotional” for many of the men, said Haasch, noting that most veterans had not received that kind of welcome when they returned from their tour of duty.
Each veteran also had a group of family and friends waiting, many holding signs with pictures from their years in the service..
Haasche said when he returned to Algoma in 1954 after his service, “there were a bunch of us, and we all went to Schillings and had a beer.”
Both men said that they were “overwhelmed” with gratitude to the Old Glory organization..
Each veteran had a trained volunteer to escort them through the day, known as a “guardian.” Haasch’s guardian was Sue Brigham of New London and Belter’s was Becky and Mike Schewe of New London. Both men also thanked Jane Babcock, Kewaunee Veteran Services Officer, for helping to arrange the trip.
The men also received a personalized book, including both a picture of them and a picture of the veterans group, as well as information about each of the memorials they visited. The guardians also gave them hats and shirts and a medal to serve as a remembrance of the trip.
“I just can’t say enough about what a day it was,” said Belter.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press Gazette: Kewaunee and Algoma veterans visit Washington D.C. on Old Glory Honor Flight