By Tech. Sgt. Meghan Skrepenski, 128th Air Refueling Wing
/ Published September 19, 2016
Milwaukee, Wisconsin -- Tears glisten in the eyes of those who have spent the day participating in the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, held at General Mitchell International Airport Sept. 17, 2016, as participants, volunteers, family members and friends share in the pride this event brings to the Veterans. Several Airmen of the Milwaukee Air National Guard's 128th Air Refueling Wing volunteered today to help the Veterans and their Guardians off bright and early in the morning and participated in the Hero's Welcome Home ceremony upon their return.
For Senior Airman Emily M. Albright, a 128 ARW Crew Chief, who has volunteered for 15 flights over the last two years, this was a flight she will never forget, as she was able to participate as a guardian alongside her grandfather Allen "Pops" Albright, a radio operator in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1954-1956. Guardians are able to experience the entire day with the veteran they accompany. The process to participate in a flight can take around a year as the waiting list is long, and currently the Stars and Stripes Honor Flights is focused on honoring World War II Veterans, Korean War Veterans and terminally ill veterans of other wars. All veterans must submit an application to participate in the cost-free trip to Washington D.C., while guardians pay a fee to participate.
"The Honor Flight is an elite group, it is an honor and a privilege to be given the opportunity to be a guardian, especially for my own Grandfather," said Albright. "Hundreds will sign up to be a guardian, so having the chance to go was very special to me." "This day could possibly be one of the best days of my grandpa's life and mine as well," said Albright.
Albright and her grandfather were welcomed by about 15 family members and even had two watching online via Skype. Albright reported that Pops said "the day was simply amazing. I've never seen him more appreciative and happy."
"It was an emotional day and the mail call (letters written by family members prior to the flight were delivered to the veterans) on the way home from Washington D.C. was another very touching experience," said Albright. "He compared it to his wedding day as one of the best days of his life."
"Being just a small part of what I have been told is one of the best days of these veterans lives, this is an opportunity to give a small thanks to those who have sacrificed so much for the freedoms we have today," said Master Sgt. Justin N. Cichoski, a 128 ARW Flight Line Expeditor, who has volunteered for about 17 of the Honor Flights.
Cichoski is not only a volunteer but the Honor Flight volunteer organizer with the 128 ARW, and they are always looking for more volunteers, particularly for the evenings with two upcoming opportunities on Oct. 15, and Nov. 5, said Cichoski. The morning shift meets the veterans and helps them get to their check-in point for the flight, often pushing them in wheelchairs and then loading the wheel chairs on the plane after all the veterans have boarded. The evening shift provides a hero's welcome to salute the veterans after their return home from Washington D.C.
"As a volunteer, this is very inspiring and humbling, because you get to see the proud generation of veterans walk past you," said Albright. "The appreciation shown for all of these veterans is simply astounding," added Albright.
"Never is the definition of humility more pronounced then when you go out of you way at the end of the night to thank these heroes for their service and with complete sincerity they say "no son, thank you so much for what you do," said Cichoski. These vets include the most selfless, dedicated, stalwart generation of Americans and truly demonstrate what it means to be part of this great country, said Cichoski.
Approximately 200 volunteers participated in the Hero's Welcome Parade including members of the 128th ARW, the Wisconsin Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary, Recruit Training Command-Great Lakes, Greenfield High School Air Force Junior ROTC, the Civil Air Patrol Milwaukee Composite Squadron 5, Marquette Navy ROTC, the Knights of Columbus, Wisconsin Army National Guard and Wisconsin Army Reserve, Milwaukee Police American Legion Post 415, and Milwaukee Fire Department American Legion Post 426, and the Greater Milwaukee Fire and Police Pipes and Drums, said Retired Wi. ANG Col. Christopher J. Charney, Stars and Stripes Director of Security.
The service members joined other participants, volunteers, family members and friends in the emotional evening, as approximately 600 volunteers combined conducted a successful Welcome Home ceremony for the 88 veterans who participated in this flight. The flight included 24 WWII veterans, 60 Korean Vets and three terminally ill vets, reported Charney.
"There are lots of tears, lots of pride and it is very rewarding to see and pay our respects to these veterans," said Charney. "This is a fantastic opportunity for everyone involved."