Eight veterans gathered around Jim Beuter’s kitchen table drinking coffee and discussing their time with war’s grip. All were aboard this year’s Honor Flight. Some had never been to Washington D.C. before, but the national’s capital was not the topic of the hour.
They felt moved by their welcome. Floored.
For some, this welcome felt significant compared to when they originally returned home.
“We just didn’t say much,” said Dennis Ayers, 70, a Vietnam War Veteran from Bayard. “We laid low, got a job, and that was about it - they didn’t like us.”
“Some of you guys got spat on,” commented Jim Beuter, 88, Korean War Veteran from Perry.
Returning home from the Vietnam War was not kind. Returning home from the Korean war was not kind.
“They were just tolerated and this was a chance to show them that we care,” said William ‘Bill’ Ballenger, Co-Starter of the Central Iowa Honor Flight.
Ballenger, a veteran himself, believed Iowa veterans deserved the opportunity to board an Honor Flight and pay Washington D.C. a visit. Today, fifteen honor flights have taken place.
“We have a wait list that is just overwhelming,” Ballenger explains.
To attend the flight, veterans must submit an application detailing their time in war. Ballenger says applications offer a variety of experience: combat soldiers, aircraft flyers, those who have been supportive, who have given back, those who have been in the navy.
Applications are dated, placed on a “wait file” and are typically selected from both central and western Iowa.
In Beuter’s living room, all soldiers told their story, periodically interrupting one another to comment about their experience or give input.
They drank “black label beer” because consuming Agent Orange in drinking water was likely.
They flew helicopters, acted as watchmen for signals at sea, braved storms in the ocean that swept airplanes off of their ships.
They made homes inside jungles, boats, the muddy ground of Vietnam.
Today, they remember together.
“I got more hugs that day than my entire life,” joked Dennis Smothers, 76, a Vietnam Veteran from Bouton.
Veterans are accompanied by Guardians who look after veterans during the day-long event. Some of the Guardians this year included members of the Polk County Supervisors Board.
“The veterans you can tell are so appreciative of how they’re treated,” said Tom Hockensmith, Polk County Supervisor.
Hockensmith, along with many other volunteers, were tasked with handling the wheelchairs, assisting veterans get from place to place, and ultimately making sure they are comfortable throughout the day.
During the day, Hockensmith was able to escort a World War 2 Veteran to the changing of the guard at the Arlington Cemetery. Hockensmith recalled individuals parting ways to let the veteran watch front and center.
“He was visibly moved watching it and I was moved watching him,” Hockensmith said. “It’s [Volunteering at the Honor Flight] just wonderful and it’s probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” Hockensmith said.
Ballenger noticed how quiet veterans were after witnessing the changing of the guard.
“It was just interesting how rolling up there, there was all sorts of talk and conversations and after that changing, it’s a very emotional thing,” Ballenger said. “It was quite quiet when we got back to the buses.”
Over 250 veterans were able to visit monuments and memorials built from the wars they previously fought in, as well as connect with veterans who fought the same battlegrounds. Some stops included the World War 2, Korean War and Vietnam memorials.
At the Vietnam Wall, veterans obtained stenciled copies of the wall, finding names of those they served along or remembered.
“There was a lot of tears as part of that process,” Hockensmith recalled.
Beuter’s living room
“I wanted to say, I was very lucky to be on this trip - I just about missed it,” said Everett Van Pelt, 86, a Korean War Veteran from Perry.
Van Pelt was joined by six members of his family during the Honor Flight.
“I had three doctors work on me and a therapist worked on me up until the day I left and I got to go.”
The group of eight Honor Flight veterans sat in silence while each explained their emotions of the Sept. 12 day.
“The honor flight was really a big deal for me,” said Ron Christenson, 70, a Vietnam War Veteran from Redfield. “I was really impressed, I think everybody was, with just how they put it on.”
Veterans were greeted with parades of American flags and hugs upon leaving Iowa at 6 a.m. to arriving in Washington D.C. later.
“Every time we went somewhere - they honored us,” Beuter said. “When we arrived they honored us, and every time we moved they honored us.”
After finishing their stories and coffee, veterans began to file out of Beuter’s house to stand under the flag for a photo.
Before the flight, all eight had never mutually known of each other.
Today, another coffee has been scheduled.
There wasn’t enough time to hear everyone’s war story during the hour visit.