WASHINGTON (WIVB) — It’s been called the trip of a lifetime. 45 of our country’s bravest-boarded Buffalo Niagara Honor Flight’s 11th trip to Washington D.C.
This one last mission, decades in the making. A chance to meet their brothers and sister in arms and make that last connection. And a thank you, long overdue. “Now it’s nice you get a welcome you know,” said Vietnam Veteran, James Phillips. “Before you felt like you did something wrong.”
And a duty to complete the journey, for those lost along the way. “I was with him right to the end,” said Keil. “It was a tribute to him.”
The day began before dawn, with a warm welcome and ceremonial send-off from the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. As the sun rose, so did the sense of anticipation.
Touchdown in Baltimore was followed by a water cannon salute, adding to the excitement.
Inside the terminal, veterans were greeted by applause, cheers, and personal displays of gratitude.
The next leg of the journey was taken by bus, with the Honor Flight motorcycle riders, leading the way to our Nation’s Capitol.
Their first stop was the World War II memorial.
101-year-old Richard Kiel is the oldest of six WWII veterans to make the trip. “It was very personal and remembering and recalling,” said Kiel.
For him, honor flight is providing a sense of closure. “Hearing the tribute to one of my buddies in particular who didn’t come back, plus many others, that didn’t come back, he said. “They’re still over there so a day like this is an honor to them.”
It was also a proud moment for 94-year-old Jesse Washington Senior, with his daughter Wendy, by his side. “Oh dad, I love you and I’m so proud of you,” she said.
74-year-old James Philips returned home from Vietnam without a proper thank you for his service.
He and other veterans were given the chance to search the wall for their fallen brothers and finally given a chance to heal. “I didn’t know what to expect,” said Phillips. “I heard don’t wear your uniform and don’t go to this place.. don’t go to that place. But now things have changed and you are welcomed home.”
At the Korean War Memorial, nineteen stainless steel soldiers, bring army veteran Harold Wohlfeil back almost 70 years.
“I think of it quite often. How things were back then,” said Wohlfeil. “ You just did what you had to do and you didn’t think about it.
With his family by his side, the 86-year-old made his way to Arlington National Cemetery.
“Words can’t describe it and it’s just so emotional,” he said. “I’ve been there before and just to see all those grave markers… you can’t believe what people have done before, just to keep us the way we are today,” said Wohlfeil.
For Harold, service was a family affair. His brothers, 91-year-old Richard, 83-year-old Raymond, and their cousin 84-year-old James Gatta, all of who served, made this trip together.
They were given the distinct honor of laying a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier. “I started to choke up right away because something like that is only given to dignitaries and presidents,” he said. “Common people like myself, I would never expect anything like that.”
After a few quick stops, including a memorial to members of the Air Force, it was time to enjoy a good meal.
And yet another experience just about every service member looks forward to, mail call.
The veterans received mail from family, friends, and even strangers — filled with gratitude and appreciation.
With this emotional mission complete, these veterans returned home to Buffalo to the welcome they earned.
And at least for one day, the weight of the wars they live with seemed to be lifted.. replaced with a smile and a sense of pride.
The next Buffalo Niagara Honor Flight takes place in October. For more information, head here.
Gabrielle Mediak is a reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2019. See more of her work here.