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Purple Heart Flight

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Nebraska, Iowa Veterans, Gold Star Families Visit Washington, D.C., For Day Of Healing, Remembering Fallen Heroes

By Joe Foreman, Editor

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Wounded veterans and Gold Star families spent a memorable day together in our nation’s capital Friday, visiting military memorials and sharing memories of loved ones who paid the ultimate sacrifice during service to their country.

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More than 100 veterans were joined by dozens of Gold Star Family members on the Purple Heart Flight, the 13th veterans honor flight arranged by Red Oak native Bill Williams and his wife Evonne.

The whirlwind day included visits to Arlington National Cemetery, Iwo Jima Memorial, World War II Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Pentagon Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.

Atlantic native Casey Swanson, a two-time Purple Heart recipient who served as a soldier in Afghanistan, was seeing the military memorials and Washington, D.C., for the first time. He was moved by the experience.

“I’m just taking in everything. I’ve never seen any of it in person before,” he said. “Arlington was kind of eye-opening to see how it just goes on and on forever. It definitely brought out some emotions and some closure.”

The other two-time Purple Heart recipient on the flight was Duane Meyer of Yorktown, who grew up on a farm outside Clarinda and ran anti-personnel carriers while serving in Vietnam in 1969-70.

“When somebody would get in a jam, we’d go in and get them out,” Meyer said of his duties in Vietnam.

Nearly 50 years since serving in the war, Meyer said he still has vivid memories of his experiences and the friends he lost in Vietnam. He had seen the traveling Vietnam Memorial when it made its way to the area a few years ago, but Friday was his first trip to the memorial wall in Washington.

“This day and experience is overwhelming,” Meyer said after being thanked for his service by a group of young greeters at the World War II Memorial.

Navy veteran Tyson Thomas of Walnut served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He wasn’t sure what to expect from the honor flight experience, but came away impressed, particularly by Arlington.

“One of the unique things for me was being able to go to Arlington National Cemetery and see a site of a fellow brother of mine that did not make it,” he said.

Brenna Maher of Council Bluffs and her 5-year-old son Nate were among the Gold Star Family members on the flight. Brenna’s late husband, Brent Maher, was killed in Afghanistan in April 2011 while deployed as a member of the Iowa National Guard. Before his deployment, Brent Maher left a sperm sample that would allow for the birth of his son through in vitro fertiliztion three years after his death.

Nate Maher was the youngest Gold Star child on the honor flight. He wore one of his dad’s “ARMY” ballcaps as he walked through Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where many of the fallen from the War on Terror have been buried. Brent Maher is buried in Council Bluffs, but Brenna wanted her son to see the markers for heroes like his father who are buried at Arlington. At the Pentagon Memorial, Nate placed a flower on a marker honoring those killed during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.

Brenna Maher said she thinks the honor flight experience will leave a lasting impression on Nate.

“I think he’s enjoying the experience,” she said. “I’m hoping he’ll have a little bit better understanding of serving your country, duty and honor and  where our freedom comes from.”

Brenna Maher had been to Arlington and some of the military memorials before Friday’s honor flight, but she was appreciative of the opportunity to share the day with veterans who possess the same love of country her husband had.

“It’s an honor to be able to see the different generations that are included and just get a better understanding for myself how far we’ve come and how our freedom is given to us,” she said.

Friday’s honor flight experience, which began with a 4:30 a.m. flight out of Eppley Airfield in Omaha, concluded about 10:30 p.m. with a “Welcome Home” parade in downtown Omaha and patriotic celebration at the Durham Museum, which once served as a train station for military personnel returning home from war or active duty.