I’d like to start by saying what a privilege it was for me to participate in the Lee County Honor Flight as a fly on the wall. This experience opened my eyes in a lot of ways.
Service means different things to different people. For some, it’s a great way to see the world, pay for school, and make some money. To these veterans, it’s so much more than that.
“It’s all about brotherhood. What more can I say?” Dixon Navy veteran Steven Moreno, 62, said to me after the day was done and everyone was enjoying their homecoming at Quad Cities International Airport in Moline.
One moment I witnessed on the trip is the perfect embodiment of this idea.
Vietnam Army veteran John Tuttle, 71, of Oregon, whom I first met in seventh grade as a student at Reagan Middle School, brought with him a note, written by Tuttle, signed “T-bone”, and addressed to one of his best friends during service, Sgt. “Cowboy”.
Tuttle later learned his real name, George L. Coody, and with tears in his eyes, he rubbed that name out on a sheet of paper while visiting the Vietnam War Memorial wall.
This incredibly heartfelt moment showed me the intense love and friendship servicemen and women develop for one another while on tour. To think that for the entirety of their friendship they knew each other only as “Cowboy” and “T-bone”, but still forged a bond that lasted a lifetime, proves that it really is all about brotherhood.
Many other poignant moments happened on the trip, but not all of them were moments of mourning.
Navy veteran Ida Johnson, 82, of Dixon the only servicewoman on this trip, was surprised by her granddaughter, her husband, and two great-grandchildren when we arrived at the National Mall.
“I couldn’t believe it. They made the day so much better,” Johnson said. She connects with these family members only a couple of times a year, so the reunion was emotional.
I allowed myself to have a couple of moments while on this trip, as well, one of which came at the Korean War Memorial.
My grandfather, Ed Mackh, served in Korea as a tank engineer.
The way the memorial is laid out, with all the statues appearing to move through this thick, swamplike grass, spoke to me. I saw my grandfather among those statues, trudging through enemy territory.
He was serving his country, his family, and by extension, me.
As I gripped his dog tag, I was struck with a wave of reverence. The appeal of service made sense to me, and I discovered a new-found appreciation of those who serve, and my grandfather, specifically.
Another moment came when I was reading the Gettysburg address, which is carved into the Lincoln Memorial. There’s an excerpt from that speech that I really want to share, one that described his feelings toward service, and now describes my own:
“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow –this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
Servicemen and women take time out of their lives and put those lives on the line so that we can live our lives to our fullest at home, prolonging the legacy of the nation and people who they so fiercely represent.
Oh, and while they’re at it, they make friends and memories that last forever.
From the bottom of my heart: Thank you for your service.
Editor’s note: Peter Balser, 25, of Dixon, is a photographer and writer for Sauk Valley Media. This was his first Honor Flight.