81 veterans take 'trip of a lifetime' to Washington, D.C.

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WASHINGTON (WSAW) -- The Never Forgotten Honor Flight has flown more than 2,000 veterans from north central Wisconsin to Washington, D.C. to remember their service by visiting the memorials constructed in their honor.

"It's a tremendous experience. I mean, it's once in a lifetime and we're really having a good time. It's unbelievable to see all the construction and all the beautiful buildings and memorials," said Robert Debs, a Marine who served in the Vietnam era.

"Oh, it was wonderful. We had a good time here and enjoyed it very much," agreed Gerrit 'Chub' Van Der Geest.

Van Der Geest is an Air Force World War II veteran who served 30 missions.

Nine World War II, 42 Korean and 30 Vietnam veterans left Wausau, Wis. early Monday morning, and were greeted by a surprise welcome at Reagan National Airport.

From there, a trip to the WWII Memorial, where vets took time to remember those who couldn't make the trip.

Many of the veterans didn't know each other prior to the flight, but quickly bonded over their shared experiences.

"It's just great to get together with all the veterans from all the different branches. We all work together as one," said Debs.

"It's great because I get to see all the different branches of office, armed service and lot of friends I've met, too; a lot of new ones," said Norm Strojny, who served with the Army during the Vietnam era.

The group also stopped at the FDR Memorial, and spent time at the Korean, Vietnam and Lincoln memorials.

"You see it in magazines or you see it in miscellaneous other places, but it doesn't mean as much to you as there it is," said Dale Edlin, a Korea Air Force veteran.

And Strojny agreed.

"Something that everybody should see. There's so much here. And we covered it in one day, and we just hit the tip of the iceberg," he said.

Veterans and their guardians also experienced the Changing of the Guard at Arlington Cemetery, and had time to pay tribute to fallen soldiers throughout the years.

"It was a great experience to serve our county and we're glad we were able to do it. We'd do it again if we had to," said Debs.

They made a final stop at the Air Force Memorial before heading home after a long, and powerful day.

"Means a lot to me. I lost my wife two years ago and puts me kind of lonely, so I was glad to go," said Van Der Geest.

The vets were surprised with a mail call on the plane ride home, where loved ones and strangers wrote letters of gratitude for their service.

And to end the night, the welcome home all the veterans deserved.

Read the original version of this article at wsaw.com.