An extraordinary flight provided an inside look at a day devoted to veterans.
On a beautiful Saturday in May 2012, I was surrounded by heroes.
Heroes like Donald Schlimgen, a soldier in the U.S. Army’s 87th Infantry Division. Donald enjoyed a white Christmas in December 1944, but holiday music did not fill the air. The only sounds he heard were the resonating fire of German machine guns, the distant explosions of detonated land mines and the thunderous roar of tank fire.
Donald, a former Lady Lake resident who is now deceased, fought in the famous Battle of the Bulge. He and his fellow American troops faced a hostile enemy and punishing climate. The battle was fought in below-freezing temperatures and knee-deep snow.
Donald survived and, despite his heroic efforts to save the world from tyranny, he returned to his home state of Wisconsin with little fanfare. There were no welcome-home parties and no parades of appreciation. He accepted a job with the Wisconsin Telephone Co., where he was employed for 40 years.
But more than six decades after returning home from his tour of duty, Donald would be recognized for bravely serving his country. In May 2012, he and 24 other World War II veterans from Lake County were chosen to participate in The Villages Honor Flight’s inaugural trip to Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day weekend. The organization was formed in 2011 to fly veterans free of charge and allow them to visit several war memorials, as well as Arlington National Cemetery.
During the one-day trip, the veterans had an opportunity to see the WWII monument that honors them and 16 million other men and women who faithfully served their country from 1941-1945.
Here’s the really cool part. The organization’s leaders chose me to be the sole media representative on the trip. I still get goosebumps just thinking about what I observed during that trip.
The highlights were endless. A large crowd of spectators waving American flags clapped and cheered as the veterans boarded a bus en route to Orlando International Airport. When the group of veterans walked toward their terminal after arriving at the airport, other air travelers stood up and welcomed them with thunderous applause. They were greeted with similar fanfare after landing at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, and they received a motorcycle escort during the 45-minute ride to Washington, D.C.
As some veterans marveled at the war monuments, others such as the Lee Cawley, of Leesburg, were busy embracing family members. His daughter and grandson drove from Richmond, Virginia, to share this glorious day with Lee, who is now deceased.
Later that evening, as veterans gathered at the airport for their return flight, organizers of Honor Flight announced a surprise mail call—just like the veterans experienced during the war. Inside the packages were letters written by local students, politicians, family members and friends.
Around midnight, as the bus arrived back in The Villages, darkness gave way to the flashing lights of police cars and firetrucks as nearly 300 people waited in the parking lot of American Legion Post 347 to welcome these heroes home. Some waved American flags, while others chanted “USA! USA!”
People often ask me about the most memorable highlight of my journalism career. Undoubtedly, it was that day. These guys put their lives on the line, and I was there to see them receive the recognition they deserved.
I’m blessed that I had an opportunity to cover The Villages Honor Flight’s inaugural trip.
For me, it was the ride of a lifetime.