I met Dick Lasell, a WWII veteran from Cedar Rapids in November 2009. In many ways he reminded me of my dad, Talbert Potter. I liked him instantly.
Both even served in the Army; Dick on the ground and dad at 20,000 feet in a B 17.
Dad talked little of the war but he was very proud of having served. The only time in my life I ever saw him cry was when I took him to the American Cemetery in Berlin where US air crews killed during the war are buried.
He walked slowly, silently, through that expansive garden of stone, pausing every so often to study a name. In deep sorrow, he left tears at each grave. I wanted to reach out to him but could not because his was pain that could not be shared. Sadly, Dad died in 1997. With him went countless memories ,stories and his chance for recognition.
Dick too displayed great pride in his service and like Dad many memories remain unshared. After meeting Dick my interest in our WWII veterans was renewed and I found myself undertaking an emotional seven month journey which gave me deeper insight into the power in the human spirit and the miracle of the Honor Flight program.
I saw something remarkable every step of the way, from the mission briefing at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church where dozens of people, many from Hy Vee and the Iowa National Guard surprised everyone by applauding each arriving veteran, to the magical, emotional welcome home given by the people of Cedar Rapids on June 22.
Even though our bodies may age and grow frail, our minds do not. Here, these men and women were no longer old in years. There was fire in their eyes and those smiles left no doubt just how much this trip meant to them. Reunited again as brothers in arms they talked and began to share untold memories and stories. They bantered back and forth as if they were again 18 or 20 something.
Hearing, “Have you ever seen so many old guys in one place before?” I couldn’t help but smile. So how important is Honor Flight to these men and women who sacrificed their youth decades ago? The joy in their faces and a few quotes speaks volumes, “This was the best day of my life”, “I feel like I was being welcomed into heaven”, “My feet didn’t touch the ground all day”, “I was never welcomed home until today”.
Even the tears on some faces were in themselves a silent story - of remembrance and honor to be sure but also of being emotionally overwhelmed by so many coming forward to honor them; Governor Culver, Senator Grassley, Congressman Braley, among them. They came at every stop, strangers young and old, offering thanks, a firm handshake, a gentle hand on the shoulder. From elementary school students, letters, poignant and moving were shared.
My journey with them was the greatest honor of my life. I was given the opportunity to escort veterans John Majerus and Don Verbeck for their final mission.
Oh, and Dick? He went too of course, escorted by his daughter Anna Marie Wehr. But... there was also a third veteran with me, who went along in my heart and in the picture taken to the WWII memorial.
To every veteran I too say thank you and welcome home. This was your day.
Michael Potter is the director of Media - Community relations for Eastern Iowa Honor Flights