Freedom Flight a day of memories for Story County veterans

Staff Writer
Story City Herald
Freedom Flight a day of memories for Story County veterans

—by Melissa Erickson, Ames Tribune Associate Editor

Dennis Black wasn’t really looking forward to seeing the Vietnam Memorial Wall, but it was something he felt he needed to do.

The wall lists the names of service members who died or were unaccounted for during the war, and Black had a list of 20 names he wanted to find.

“I needed to kind of apologize to them,” Black said while standing next to the wall. “I was their medic and I didn’t do enough.”

“They’ve probably forgiven me, but I haven’t.”

Black, who served as an Army medic from 1969 to 1970, said he thought finding some of their names was starting to help.

“I wish they were here with me,” he said, pointing out four names, and even reciting the dates they died.

Black, who is from Pleasant Hill but lived in Nevada when he entered the Army, was one of 148 veterans who traveled to Washington, D.C., Tuesday, Oct. 7, as part of the 2014 Story County Freedom Flight to view the national memorials.

It was a day of mixed emotions for many of the veterans, who served during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Many of them said they were caught between sometimes painful or difficult memories and the fun and excitement of the day.

“It brings back memories of friends and family that were lost,” said Marine Corps veteran Robert Blattert, of Ames. “It gets a little emotional.”

Blattert and Lowell Yager, an Army veteran from Ames, both said they were grateful for the people who showed up to the send-off ceremony earlier in the week and lined the streets as the veterans rode by on their buses.

The day started in Ames where the veterans met around 3:30 a.m. to load onto buses and drive to the Des Moines airport. The flight out to D.C. was filled with stories from their times of service, as one man told of digging foxholes with a man who was 6 feet 10 inches tall, and another told of surveying airplane crash sites in Vietnam.

Gerry Skahill, an Army Reserve veteran from Ames, was completely surprised when he walked out of Washington Dulles Airport and saw his son and 4-month-old grandson waiting for him.

“I came walking out not expecting anything and I see them standing over there, and there’s a sign on the bus that says ‘Grandpa Skahill,’” he said. “That brings a tear to your eye.”

Skahill’s son AJ, who is a U.S. Border Patrol agent at a training camp in West Virginia, drove over to D.C. Tuesday morning in order to surprise his father and share in the day.

“We decided to try to make it a three generation thing,” AJ Skahill said.

The group’s first stop was at Arlington National Cemetery, where they gathered at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for a wreath-laying ceremony. Beneath an overcast sky and drizzling rain, brothers Dennis and Steve Stone, of Ames, and Larry Stone, of Story City, presented a wreath on behalf of the Story County group.

Robert Sill, a Navy veteran from Ames, thought the ceremony at Arlington was “awesome.”

“Everyone said to go there because it just strikes everyone, and that is so true,” Sill said. “It was just very moving and very well done and it is just something everyone needs to see.”

The sun came out as the group arrived at the World War II memorial. The veterans, in their sea of bright yellow jackets, spread out across the memorial, some looking up names in an electronic directory of U.S. WWII veterans, others taking photos in front of the “Iowa” pillar and others simply stopping to gaze out across the plaza.

Forrest Petersen, a World War II veteran from Nevada, carried two photos of his great-granddaughter, keeping them safely tucked inside his shirt throughout the trip. Whitaker held up the photos as he had his own picture taken in front of the pool in the center of the memorial, so that he could show she was there with him.

Some members of the group said they were surprised their individual service qualified them to go on the trip, saying they “only did what they were asked,” or didn’t feel they had done any especially remarkable acts.

“I honestly thought, well that’s not for me. I didn’t feel like I deserved it,” said Judith Trumpy, of Ames. “I feel really grateful, excited and amazing.”

Trumpy did a year-long dietetics internship with the Army after graduating from college in 1968. After her internship, she spent a year of “payback time” working in Army hospitals in California and Colorado.

She said it was a “fluke” that she was the only female among the 148 veterans.

“Other women deserve it and will be able to go on the trip,” she said.

In the afternoon, the group went to the Korean War, Lincoln and Vietnam War Memorials. Some of the vets sat in pairs or small groups on park benches in the shade and traded stories, and others wandered between the memorials, stopping to take pictures along the way.

The veterans also viewed the Air Force and U.S. Navy Memorials, and made their final stop of the day at the Marine Corps Memorial, where they all gathered together for a group photo in front of the statue depicting the iconic flag raising at Iwo Jima.

After the pictures, a group of school children on a history trip from Florida walked up to the veterans to meet them and say “thank you.”

When the kids started singing “God Bless America,” the veterans joined in.

The vets enjoyed a meal and drinks on the plane ride back to Iowa, and were surprised with letters and cards written by family members and friends.

When they arrived in Des Moines, a crowd was waiting to greet them with a flag line and “Welcome Home” banner.

The veterans loaded onto buses one last time for the trip back to Ames, and were escorted by police officers and Legion Riders. Once the caravan crossed the Story County line, the county’s volunteer fire departments were waiting atop the overpasses along Interstate 35 with the lights of their engines flashing.

As the buses went under the Highway 210 overpass, two firetrucks sat on top with a large American flag hanging between them. The veterans looked eagerly out the bus windows at the red and blue flashing lights and applauded.