PEORIA — A large storm, likely the one that swept through central Illinois late Wednesday night, hit Washington, D.C., during a Greater Peoria Honor Flight trip.
Trees were down at Arlington National Cemetery. And the flag on the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial was missing. It wasn't clear from participants if it had been blown off in the storm or taken down.
But it didn't dampen the spirits of the veterans who went to the nation's capital for a daylong, whirlwind tour of the nation's military memorials and monuments.
For Tom Thompson, a former Marine from Peoria who served in Vietnam in 1970, the most emotional part was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or simply "The Wall." Thompson served with military advisers in Vietnam. He lived among the villagers, ate their food, learned their customs and engaged in what is known as "counter-insurgency" measures. In essence, his job was to convince the locals to stop helping the other side and aid the Americans.
So he knew about the war firsthand, but he said Thursday that he was "flabbergasted" when he saw the number of names at the memorial.
"It's unbelievable," he said. "There are so many people who are on that wall who died. When I came back, people that I had known for years wouldn't talk to me.
"Friends from high school wouldn't talk to me," he said. "I volunteered to join when I joined the Marine Corps. My job was to go over there, and I did my job."
The Honor Flight, the people associated with it and the trip itself, he said, made him feel "welcomed home for the first time."
For another man, Joe Stien of Peoria, who served with the U.S. Army in Korea, the trip was a way to remember an old friend, a classmate who died in Korea. And it was also his first trip to Washington. For him, the World War II memorial was special. He joined the service at the end of World War II and served overseas in Europe after the fighting was finished, but during the cleanup process.
The scenes around the memorial that showed the various steps a service member took from enlistment until, hopefully, returning home, intrigued him.
His daughter, Sheryl Davis, accompanied him as his escort. Herself a veteran, of the U.S. Navy, she said the trip was extra special as she was able to be with her father. What struck her, as well as many others, was the friendliness from everyone.
"So many people came up to us and said 'Hello, thanks for your service,' and they were so nice. It was amazing. Just very humbling to be here."
And then there was a Robert Ritter, who served with the U.S. Air Force as a radar operator. He was stationed in Newfoundland, Canada, and in other cold climates. His job was to set up the beginning stages of the early warning system that is now used by NORAD and the United States in the early 1960s. He was stationed, for a time, in or near Washington, and hasn't been back for years. He was very impressed with Arlington, saying the number of graves was "very humbling."
"So many lives wasted on war, but in some cases, that's what kept us free. The most impressive thing would have been the attention to detail on the burial sites and the monuments in Arlington. The Vietnam wall chokes you up and brings a tear to your eye," he said.
And the Air Force vet said he especially enjoyed the Marine Corps memorial. He was 9 or 10, he said, when the battle for Iwo Jima raged. He remembered hearing about the war while watching newsreels at the movies each weekend.
"My dad was in World War II, so when I see things, it brings back memories," he said.
And for the same reason, Stien also got a kick out of the memorial for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. At that site was a bronze statue of a man with a radio, as if he was listening to a Fireside Chat. Stien said he remembered his own family — his parents and his siblings — gathering around the radio to listen to one of the president's speeches.
Bob Reed, another Air Force veteran, has been on nine Honor Flights. He's been an escort as well as a bus captain, but never one of the honored guests. He shrugged off any suggestion that it was his turn, and said it's all about the veterans.
"We want to find as many veterans as we can, get out there to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials and honor them," he said.