SOUTHERN UTAH – As the sun drew its curtain on D-Day Saturday, community members in both St. George and Cedar City gathered at the Dixie Convention Center and the Leavitt Group Hangar, respectively, to welcome home a group of veterans from their trip to the District of Columbia as part of the Utah Honor Flight.
To say that the trip, which took 49 World War II and Korean War veterans along with their guardians to the nation’s capitol to view the memorials and participate in commemorative ceremonies, was the trip of a lifetime would be both true and possibly an understatement for the participants who returned home with smiles from ear to ear and tears streaming down their faces.
While the groups from both counties traveled as one throughout the trip, they separated on their return; one group heading to the Dixie Convention Center in St. George and the other to the Leavitt Group Hangar at the Cedar City Airport.
As the caravan of vehicles carrying the 24 WW II veterans and their guardians from Washington County pulled up to the Dixie Convention Center escorted by the Patriot Guard Riders, friends, family and many others gathered with flags, balloons, signs and patriotic garb to welcome home their living heroes.
Cheers erupted as one-by-one the veterans disembarked from the bus and, as if the sound were carried by the wind, a bugle began to play whilst members of the Marine Corps and other military members saluted their return.
The veterans were then led into an assembly held in their honor where they were treated to patriotic songs sung by the Color Country Chorus, words of welcome home and gratitude by St. George Mayor Jon Pike and applause from an appreciative crowd.
Though exhausted from their whirlwind trip, participants in the honor flight expressed their awe at having had the opportunity to take such a memorable journey as well as to have been treated so well.
“It was awesome,” honor flight participant Bob Jensen said, “ … every memorial I went to was a highlight.”
Jensen said it was unbelievably well-organized and thanked organizers for all they had done.
One of nine children and one of six who all served in the military at the same time, Jo Neilan was a member of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES, an all female branch of the U.S. Naval Reserves instituted in 1942 during WWII, her grandson and guardian on the trip, Brett Neilan, said.
Brett Neilan said that he was overwhelmed with the whole experience adding that he probably wouldn’t be able to find all the words to describe how amazing it was for a long time.
“She talks about the cause, the meaning of it all,” Brett Neilan said of his grandma’s service, “and this trip definitely reflected all of that.”
For Brett Neilan, the highlight of the trip, he said, was watching his grandma, who raised him, experience it all.
For many of the veterans who participated in the Utah Honor Flight this trip may well be the last opportunity they have for an experience like this. Organizers made a special effort to accommodate the veterans at whatever stage of health they are and to treat them with honor and respect, Utah Honor Flight Subcommittee Chair, Jennie Barnett, said.
“We give them the honor that they are due,” Barnett said. “They all came home from the war and went right back to work and never got any recognition when they got home.”
The welcome home reception closed with each veteran being presented with an American flag by members of Boy Scout Troop 1752 who saluted each veteran and thanked them for their service.
Among balloons, children waving flags and chatting soldiers, Dennis Robison, director of the Utah Honor Flight for Iron County weaved around the crowd gathered at the Leavitt Group Hangar at the Cedar City Airport. Everyone seemed to know him, shooting both questions and compliments his way.
A Vietnam War veteran, Robison was inspired to start the honor flight in Iron County after joining his father on such a trip in September 2014. He spoke with the veterans groups here in Southern Utah and started the funding in December.
Robison said he was pleased with the turnout. The one thing he wished had gone differently was the bus schedule, which ended up being a little over an hour later than anticipated. However, the crowd was still as large as ever when the veterans arrived. For the most part, the event went extremely well.
One of the most touching parts of the trip, Robison said, was when the veterans were going through the airport.
“In Baltimore, the crowd just stopped and started to sing ‘God Bless America,’ completely unscripted,” Robison said.
A lot of behind-the-scenes work was involved, retired Navy Capt. and member of the event committee Ron Lewis said, but the path was made smoother by the support from the community, especially the donors.
On one side of the hangar, there was a large board with messages for the veterans.
“(The board) gives the community an opportunity to leave notes, mostly for the families (of the veterans), so the family can see the community support for the veterans,” Lewis said.
Some people had more than one family member on the trip. Sue Houston, an event volunteer, waited for the buses to bring home her father-in-law, a WWII veteran, and her husband, his guardian.
Houston read about the event in a flyer from the mayor, and finally called the number listed. Her father-in-law, Herman Houston, was the last veteran to be registered for the trip.
“They had a great time,” Houston said. “As a family, we have rarely heard his stories, but he’s been telling them to everyone.”
After all the veterans had arrived, each was given a gift of a flag, plaque and signed book, and was honored individually. To close, the crowd sang a tear-filled rendition of “God Bless America.”
The Utah Honor Flight operates solely on donations. Another trip is scheduled to leave sometime in the fall.
St. George News reporter/copy editor Emily Hammer contributed to this report from Iron County. St. George News videographer Leanna Bergeron contributed the videocast to this report.
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