Jan 13, 2011

In the Company of Heroes

Now I know that in our first couple posts here at John Lynch’s Dad, Jim and I said that we wanted to create an environment where we would discuss topics in a good-hearted, light-natured manner.  This post might not qualify as that, but it is something that I think needs to be written.

I read this week that on January 2, 2011 Major Dick Winters, a veteran of World War II, passed away.  Most people know of Winters from Damian Lewis’ portrayal of him in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. The show, based on a book by Stephen E. Ambrose with the same title, documented one paratroop company’s campaign of duty in the European Theater of World War II. 

I mention this for two reasons. 

First, many of my roommates/good friends were Band of Brothers aficionados during the time we spent together in college.  A lot of times, we’d watch an episode or four all while discussing the respect that we had for these men who, during the war, were the same age as us.  To many people in my generation, I think it takes a show like Band of Brothers to open our eyes to what the young men and women sacrificed for our country when they were our age.  For us, being 20 meant going to class, cheering for the Irish and trying to meet girls.  For men like Dick Winters and his band of brothers, it meant doing everything in their power to stop what was becoming one of the most devastatingly horrific power-conquests in modern times.

Secondly, I wanted to mention this because last April, I had the privilege of being a guardian on the Honor Flight of the Quad Cities.  The Honor Flight Network was created as a way to honor World War II veterans throughout the country by flying them to Washington, D.C. to see many of the city’s memorials.

I don’t recall the exact numbers for the flight I accompanied, but there were roughly 80 or 90 World War II veterans on the flight with about 60 guardians (helpers) and some other attendees (news crews, reporters, etc.).  I was guardian to my grandfather, Edward Haydon (Army, European Theater) and LeeRoy Copple (Navy, Pacific Theater). 

We arrived to the Quad Cities International Airport before the sun rose on April 23.  My grandpa somehow got his foldable walking cane through the TSA checkpoint.  Apparently, they didn’t figure a man using a wheelchair could pose much of a threat! We arrived in DC mid-morning fortunate to have a beautiful, sunny spring day to spend in our nation’s capitol. 

Group Photo @ World War II Memorial.
Upon arrival, we all loaded into busses and headed to the World War II memorial, where a group photo was taken of all the veterans.  We were given free time to roam around the memorial, take photos and see the sights.  The World War II memorial is on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.  Prior to this visit, I had never seen the National Mall during the day.  Its expanse is much greater in person than it appeared from pictures or film/tv.  One thing that happened here really took me by surprise.  Complete strangers were approaching the veterans and thanking them for their service, with some even shaking hands or saluting.  Some school-aged kids even wanted to take pictures with the vets.  This was the beginning of a trend we would experience throughout the day.

Following the World War II Memorial, we hopped across the river to see the United States Air Force Memorial, which is adjacent to the Arlington National Cemetery.  The USAF Memorial is a very cool design, with 3 spires shooting upward like the smoke trailing fighter jets during a demonstration. 

Group @ Iwo Jima Memorial
We didn’t spend as much time at the USAF Memorial as the World War II memorial, and our next stop was the Iwo Jima Memorial.  I was excited to see this, as the much-anticipated miniseries The Pacific debuted about a month prior to our visit to DC, and the show was about halfway through its allotted episodes.  Before this series aired (which ended up being a very good series, portraying World War II in a different light than Band of Brothers), I really didn’t know a lot about the war in the pacific.  Most of the reading I had done and shows or movies I had seen focused on the European Front. 

On a lighter note, while at the Iwo Jima Memorial, another veteran on our flight (and a relation on my mom’s side), Albert Dussliere, was chatting with a few people at the memorial who were not with our group.  He called me over, and introduced me to some moderately-distant relatives on my mom’s side of the family.  They were visiting DC for vacation.  I guess we really do live in a small world sometimes.  

After we visited the Iwo Jima Memorial, we headed to Arlington Cemetery.  We briefly stopped by the Women in Service Memorial, and then unloaded the busses near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  Our stop was timed so we could watch the changing of the tomb guards. The precision in timing that the tomb guards display is quite impressive.

The last place we stopped before returning home was the Lincoln Memorial, so the vets could have a chance to experience the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the reflecting pool.  As time ran short, we weren’t able to view the Vietnam Memorial, but we did get to soak in the rest of the area.  The reflecting pool extends from the Lincoln Memorial all the way back down to the World War II Memorial, where we started our day.  As time came to load back into the busses, everyone (myself included) was starting to feel the effects of walking around all day in the sun, and we were ready to head home.  Little did we know that the best part of our day was yet to come.

Back in the Quad Cities, other veteran groups and friends and family of the vets on the Honor Flight lined the airport terminal.  As the veterans and their guardians poured into the terminal, they were welcomed with a rousing “Welcome Home!” I can safely report that by the time the last veteran reached the terminal, there wasn’t a dry eye in the building.  There must have been a lot of pollen in the air that time of the year.

Ed Haydon and LeeRoy Copple
In Major Dick Winters’ case, he and the men he led (probably unwittingly) became famous for the courageousness they displayed in their actions during World War II.   For others, like Ed Haydon and LeeRoy Copple, life after World War II was pretty anonymous.  But for one day at least, these veterans were fittingly treated like heroes.

Stephen Ambrose wrote of Dick Winters, “And he made a promise to himself: if he lived through the war, he was going to find an isolated farm somewhere and spend the remainder of his life in peace and quiet.”  I know that Major Winters will spend the rest of eternity in the peace and quiet he so rightly earned.  As for the rest of men and women who were a part of World War II, I can only hope they live out their days knowing that what they sacrificed and endured was truly heroic. 

(editor's note): I cannot emphasize how enjoyable and rewarding the Honor Flight experience was.  If anyone has any interest in doing something like this, you can get information about the Honor Flight here.  I highly recommend doing this.  I hope to be able to go again in the future.

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