Last Saturday, on his 85th birthday, my father got on a plane at 5 a.m. and flew to Washington D.C. But he wasn't alone. My oldest niece's husband, Sgt. Mark Felix, and about 100 other World War II veterans and their guardians accompanied him.
They toured the World War II Memorial, the memorials to the U.S. Marines (Iwo Jima), Vietnam, and Korea, as well as the Lincoln Memorial. They watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Then they flew back home, arriving around 10 p.m.
When the vets returned home, they were met with a hero's welcome at Gen. Billy Mitchell Field in Milwaukee. A band played tunes from the 1940s (lots of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman), and they came though the terminal three abreast to the cheers of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The youngest vet was 83.
This was all part of a great program called Honor Flight, in which WWII vets can fly to visit D.C. for free (while guardians need to pay). If you know a vet who might want to participate or you would like to help out as a guardian you can apply and/or donate. My father flew with Stars & Stripes Honor Flight, which serves southeast Wisconsin, but is also Badger Honor Flight in Madison, as well as other hubs in La Crosse, Wausau, and Appleton.
About a thousand WWII veterans die every day in America. And that doesn't count their wives. Women like my mother, who worked at home to win the war and then to raise the Baby Boom generation, who believe that we are the Greatest Generation for having put up with the Spam and "cream beef on toast" that our fathers forced on us from their basic training days.
Our parents' generation is fading before our eyes, but lots of us are taking the opportunity to say "thank you"' before it's too late.
For the flight home we were asked to write something for our fathers to read. I won't recount my personal letter to my mother and father here, but I did send along with it a speech I gave on the steps of the Capitol on Memorial Day in 2005.
For what it's worth, here it is.
Memorial Day Speech -- May 30, 2005
It's an honor to be here this morning and to be part of this program.
I want to first acknowledge the recent loss of two more Madison area soldiers. This past week Sgt. Mark Maida and Chief Warrant Officer Joshua Scott lost their lives in Iraq. On behalf of all Madisonians, I want to express my condolences to their family and friends and to let them know how proud we are of their loved ones' service to our country.
I am a member of a fortunate generation of Americans. Too young for Vietnam and beyond service years for the most recent conflicts, my generation never needed to go to war. But we appreciate the world made for us by generations that preceded us and we value the sacrifices made by younger Americans today.
My parents' generation fought in World War II. My father was a paratrooper training for the invasion of Japan when the war ended and he served as part of the American occupation forces there. My nieces' husband has been stationed in Washington State in an Army unit. He will soon return home just in time for the birth of his second child later this summer.
As Mayor, I have had the solemn honor of seeing the "Madison Marines" off to Iraq and the joyful honor of welcoming them home 15 months later. And, among the most memorable moments of my service in office so far was a ride in an F-16 courtesy of Col. Joe Brandenmuhl and Madison's 115th Fighter Wing. (I'm happy to report that I achieved five "g's" and kept my lunch down.)
But Americans of my generation have been lucky to live most of our lives in an era of peace. There are those who have observed that, in part because of that, Americans are losing a sense of the real meaning of Memorial Day; treating it more like a family holiday of barbeques and famous road races than as a solemn day of remembrance for those who fought and lost their lives for our country.
But I'm not so sure that these American heroes would necessarily want it another way. After all, it is peace and a normal life that they hoped to return to... and it is a peaceful life that I believe they wished for their children.
So, we honor American soldiers when we decorate monuments and give speeches and fly the flag and play taps. These are important rituals to keep their memories... and the memories of their sacrifices… alive.
But it is also good to remember that they were -- and are -- citizens as well as soldiers. They fought for their homes and they fought to come home. So, we also honor them when we live the quiet, sweet, average American lives that they wished for themselves and for us.
My father has never talked much about his time as a paratrooper. He went on to do other things in his life. But I know that he gave my mother his silver wings when they were dating. She still has them. And on many of my Memorial Days I do get together with my family and we have a barbeque. And there is always a moment on these days when I watch the smoke drift up to a perfect Wisconsin blue sky and I think about those silver wings, packed silently away in my mother's dresser. And quietly, just like in a prayer, I say to myself "Thank you."