The most rewarding way to experience our nation's capital in less than 12 hours is by traveling as a guardian with an Honor Flight.
An Honor Flight is a day of honor for military men and women who've served our country. It's a nonprofit that provides veterans with an all-inclusive paid trip to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials that were built for them.
My friend Terri and I traveled with the Greater St. Louis Honor Flight as volunteer guardians for a World War II veteran named Virgil. He was 92 years old, grew up on a farm in southern Illinois, and served in the Navy in the Pacific during the war. After the war, he tuned pianos and lived with the love of his life. Oh, and he knew the secret to growing the sweetest and juiciest tomatoes you've ever tasted.
The day of the trip started early. Everyone had to be at the airport before 4:30 a.m. After a quick introduction, the conversations began. Virgil and the other veterans were very happy to share. They told us about their time in the service, their kids, their grandkids, their great-grandkids, and their overall excitement about the day.
As we made our way to the Southwest Airlines flight from St. Louis to Baltimore, everyone was full of anticipation, but none of us could foresee the emotional journey we were embarking upon.
Getting any rest on the 2-hour flight was not an option; we were just getting warmed up. The 90-something-year-old veteran across the aisle from us was kissing the flight attendant just a few minutes into the flight; he diligently made sure the moment was documented with a photograph. It was going to be that kind of day!
When we landed in Baltimore, there were flags, salutes, and a standing ovation from everyone in the terminal.
It was a pleasant surprise, and the tears flowed sooner than expected.
World War II Memorial
We boarded a bus and shuttled to the most important stop of the day. The reason the Honor Flight was founded was to get World War II veterans to the memorial that was built for them.
Sitting senators met our bus and greeted Virgil and every veteran.
The men then went in to get their first real look at the World War II Memorial.
They looked at every wreath, examined every panel, savored every granite column -- each a symbol of the conflict that had demanded so much of them. They paid their respects at the wall adorned with 4,048 gold stars, each one representing 100 Americans who didn't return from the war. The veterans' gratitude was palpable and humbling to those of us lucky enough to witness it.
The courage of these men changed the course of history, yet there wasn't a hint of entitlement between them.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
For some of these men, it was their first trip to Washington, D.C. They must have summoned the energy of their 20-year-old selves, because they didn't want to miss a thing.
The next stop was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. We walked the path along the wall and read the names, looking for one in the 58,000 Virgil may have known.
The death toll was far less than that of World War II, but the gravity of the loss was equally devastating.
Every name mattered to these men, and you couldn't help but be moved by the strangers standing on the path, grieving for their loved ones.
Just a short distance southwest of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the Lincoln Memorial.
It's a surreal experience walking through Washington's memorials with a veteran. The steps of the Lincoln Memorial were full of tourists taking photos. Terri, Virgil, and I were tourists too, and we did the same. We were just a bit more reverent. The importance of the visit felt heightened. We wanted to tell everyone we saw, "See these men? They're the reason we're free to walk around here today." We wanted each visitor to see the memorials through Virgil's eyes.
Looking up at President Lincoln, seated in his grand marble chair, you're struck by the design. The memorial's architect, Henry Bacon, drew inspiration from the Parthenon in Greece, the birthplace of democracy, and wanted a memorial worthy of the man who guaranteed a part in it for all Americans.
Lincoln looks east, forever watching the sun rise over the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol.
Korean War Veterans Memorial
As we walked south of the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, 19 stainless steel statues seemingly appeared out of the ether. And again -- it hit us. Another war, another memorial to those who bravely fought and died far from home.
The statues at the Korean War Veterans Memorial are startlingly lifelike. Nearly 7 feet tall, they somehow appear to move with a purpose. The wall across from the statues is etched with the faces of those who served.
The detail is so exact that you can almost hear them speak; it's as though they're trying to tell you about their war.
It was tough to imagine that the day could get more emotional, but it was time to get back on the bus and head across the Potomac.
Marine Corps War Memorial
It was after lunch now, and while everyone had been up since well before dawn, the excitement of the veterans was still infectious. We also felt a bit spoiled. Chauffeured from place to place and dropped off just steps from the heartrending memorials of the capital, I realized there would never be a better way to see Washington.
The bus pulled up to the Marine Corps War Memorial. I had seen it many times in pictures, but never in person. It was the same for many on the bus. While the famous scene of the men raising the American flag on Iwo Jima took place during World War II, the statue is dedicated to all Marines who've died fighting for our country.
Arlington National Cemetery
The next stop was Arlington National Cemetery. I had visited with my family when I was younger, so I was prepared for another emotional stop. We drove by the Eternal Flame at President John F. Kennedy's gravesite, past the rows and rows of perfectly spaced white marble headstones.
The last time I had watched the Changing of the Guard, my family had found a place on the steps across from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to bear witness. There really isn't a bad place from which to view the ceremony. You just feel so grateful to be there. But when you're with a group of veterans, it's even more special.
The veterans were brought around to the side, very close to the tomb. The only thing between them and the soldiers standing guard was a thin rope. We felt as if we were part of the ceremony. The clicks of heels echoed louder, the instructions from the relief commander rang deeper, and the movement of the weapons seemed sharper. It was a solemn moment, but it was also inspirational. It made us want to do more to ensure that every veteran could experience this.
The sentiment remained consistent throughout the day: The veterans could not believe this was happening to them, and neither could we.
Air Force Memorial
The last stop of the day was at the Air Force Memorial, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery. Beneath the three stainless steel spires that seemed to pierce the sky, a brigadier general waited to welcome the men. He thanked them for their service, but it's what happened next that left the entire group in awe.
One of the veterans on the trip had survived D-Day. He was in his early 90s, but he was still able to tell the story. The brigadier general knelt beside him in his wheelchair as he spoke. Not because he wanted to hear, but because he needed to. We all did. The group around this D-Day survivor grew as he relived his experience. He captured everyone's attention. Despite the rush of the day, time seemed to stand still while this brave man shared his tale.
The emotional pendulum swung once more, and off we went to another part of the Air Force Memorial for a performance by the American Bombshells, a modern-day version of the Andrews Sisters. They entertained the veterans with wartime hits like "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," and the men quickly transformed into their 20-year-old selves.
Almost all of them wanted their pictures taken with the women at the event's conclusion.
The vets were now declaring this day their best ever.
End Of The Day
The day was over, but the surprises were not. While we waited at the airport gate, there was another special moment: mail call. It was an important event during the vets' years in the service, and it was another treat. Except this time, there weren't just one or two letters: Each veteran received a manila envelope filled with cards overflowing with gratitude from friends and family members. There wasn't a dry eye in the place; at the end of the day, it was amazing that anyone had any tears of joy left.
The flight home was much more subdued. It was time for rest and reflection, although a few were still chattering about the day. What the veterans didn't know was that there was one more surprise waiting for them at the terminal.
Flags lined the path, and dozens of loved ones were cheering and holding signs as each veteran made his way from the gate area. As they reunited with their families, the phrase we heard all day ("I just can't believe it!") was heard again and again. We'd only been gone about 14 hours, but there was a hero's welcome waiting just for them.
Virgil passed less than a year after our trip. The man who was always so full of energy and still lived in his own home went peacefully in his sleep.
Terri and I would often visit him after our trip. He'd get his riding lawn mower out, hook it up to a wagon, and drive my boys around his large yard. He loved to garden and was thoughtful enough to plant some special tomato plants for us.
(Oh, and Virgil's secret to the sweetest and juiciest tomatoes? Mix a tablespoon of Epsom salt with a gallon of water before you water your plants. I'm pretty sure he also just had a very special green thumb.)
An Honor Flight is such a rewarding experience. If you have the opportunity to be a guardian and are physically able, Terri and I highly recommend it. You do need to pay for your trip, but you get to spend a day in our nation's capital that you will never forget. More importantly, you're able to see it through a veteran's eyes.
You can also help send veterans to the capital by offering financial support for Honor Flights. You can either support the national organization or your regional Honor Flight organization with a tax-deductible donation.