More than 300 people were at the Central Nebraska Regional Airport Wednesday evening to welcome home more than 80 veterans who were returning to Grand Island after a three-day trip to Washington, D.C.
It was the 10th Hall County Hero Flight. There were veterans from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War on the flight. They returned to a hero’s welcome at the airport.
As they departed from their Allegiant charter flight, there was a flag line made up of members of the United Veterans Club, the Air Force Junior ROTC program at Grand Island Senior High, the Nebraska Patriot Guard and the Legion Guard.
The Northwest High School band played the different military branches’ songs. There were enthusiastic cheers and applause from the people gathered for the homecoming ceremony as the veterans traveled down the flag line.
There were many special moments as friends and loved ones greeted the veterans.
As Vietnam War veteran Roger Harrie of Grand Island got off the plane, he was welcomed home by about a dozen of his former high school teachers from when he graduated from Northwest High School in 1973.
“I never had this before,” Harrie said as his former teachers greeted the hero back from this trip.
Overwhelmed with emotion by this surprise welcome home, he said, “I can’t explain it. It’s just unbelievable. A lot of memories.”
One of Harrie’s former teachers, Ron Bickford, said, “We are here to support him.”
Many family members and friends came out to the airport to support the returning veterans with welcome home signs and lots of applause, hugs, and love.
Another returning Vietnam veteran was Kenneth Grashorn of Grand Island.
“The trip was grand,” Grashorn said. “I couldn’t have gone with a better bunch of people. I would do it again. We had a wonderful time.”
For Grashorn, the highlight of the trip was the visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
World War II veteran Robert Johnson, was also one of the returning veterans.
“It was wonderful,” Johnson said. “It was really exciting.”
For Johnson and many of the other veterans, a highlight of the trip was a nighttime visit to the Capitol.
For Korean War veteran Dale Moul, it was his first trip to the nation’s capital.
“It was a great trip,” Moul said.
With this being the last Hero Flight, Moul and many other veterans, such as Grashorn and Johnson, wanted to take the opportunity to participate in the event.
Over the last 10 years, more than 1,000 Hall County veterans have participated in the Hero Flights.
According to Willie Skala, a founder of the Hall County Hero Flight program, during the last 10 years, more than $1.5 million was raised from public sources to fund the flights. For the veterans, there were no costs for participating in the program.
Skala said that all the hamburger dinners at the United Veterans Club over the years and the other fundraisers were done out of love for the veterans by an army of unpaid volunteers.
He said what was overwhelming over the years of the Hero Flights was the involvement of the public, especially the young students who worked hard during the various fundraisers that made the flights possible.
At the end of the flag line was Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele, who handed each of the returning veterans a Key to the City for their service to the country.
Steele was one of the speakers at a ceremony at the airport.
“Today, we thank the returning veterans who have secured our freedom,” he said in his address.
“Compared to their service, our saying thank you and welcome home is a small gesture, but there have been many times in the past when that small gesture was not offered. That is why it is important that we speak up now and say thank you and welcome home.”
Steele said the veterans’ devotion to service did not end when they hung up their uniforms.
“Their uniform simply reminds us of a lifetime of service to their country and community,” he said.
That sentiment was also echoed by Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, adjutant general of the Nebraska National Guard.
Bohac said whether it is county government, city government, school board, or veterans service organization, “You are going to find a veteran — someone who is still willing to serve.”
“We owe them so much, not only for their time in uniform, but their willingness and their recognition that they still have something to contribute,” he said.
Bohac said it is a fitting tribute to the veterans to see the tremendous amount of support for them from the community.
“If there is any doubt, anywhere, about the patriotism of the residents of our communities, they would only have to come here to Grand Island to witness what we see,” he said.
Hall County Veterans Service Officer Don Shuda, one of the organizers of the Hero Flight program, said the final flight was excellent.
“It was just such a pleasure and honor to be with our group of veterans in Washington, D.C., to recognize them for the service they have done for our country,” Shuda said.