Wisconsin veterans whose trips to Washington, DC on honor flights were postponed last year due to the pandemic, secured a demonstration of support in Milwaukee on Sunday.
Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, which transports veterans to Washington to visit memorials to the wars they served in, held a parade through Milwaukee for 101 veterans while waiting for their trips to be rescheduled.
Led by a family member or volunteer, each veteran boarded a trailer from American Family Field to the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center. Supporters gathered along the road to cheer, despite the intermittent rain, and veterans waved their hands from their windows.
Frank Swietlik of Milwaukee, driven by his daughter Ann Stark, was the first veteran of the car lineup – and one of only two to serve in World War II.
âIt means a lot of things,â he said of the event.
Swietlik entered the Navy at age 18 in 1944. Posted to a naval hospital in Oregon, he was to be sent overseas at the end of the war.
A close friend died in Iwo Jima and his wife’s brother was killed in the Mediterranean. He was happy to be honored on Sunday but kept in mind those who never returned home.
âYou can’t help but think of them,â Swietlik said. “I feel like I represent them.”
When attendees arrived at Brewers Stadium, each received a packed lunch and a large magnet for their car door showing the veteran’s name, war, and military branch. A high school battery and the Racing Sausages entertained the group as they waited for the start of the parade.
Motorists decorated their cars with American flags, red, white and blue balloons and signs. Brent Halverson of Sheboygan Falls got into a pickup truck with a large poster attached to the back: âProud family of a Navy veteran,â he said.
Halverson’s daughter, Martha Miller of Sheboygan, has asked as many family members as possible to sign their names on it.
âJust kind of like to tell him, hey, we’re proud of you,â Miller said.
Halverson, a Vietnam War veteran, said Sunday’s experience was humbling.
Gordon Wuestenhagen, also from Sheboygan Falls, was one of 14 Korean War veterans in attendance. He was there with his son Dale, who served in the Navy in the 1980s.
“It is an honor that they honor us,” said Wuestenhagen.
Spectators brave the rain to cheer on the caravan
Outside the Harley-Davidson Museum, more than 50 people gathered with umbrellas and lawn chairs to cheer and cheer as the trailer passed.
Geraldine Bartoli of Campbellsport brought eight people in to watch her husband, Dennis, in the parade.
The two met right after Dennis returned from Vietnam, and she recalls recounting the lack of welcome to him and others. Sunday’s event meant a lot to him, Bartoli knew that.
âThey never really got anything,â Bartoli said. “They have done a lot. They have given a few years of their lives for us.”
Even those who didn’t know anyone in the parade found themselves in the wind and drizzle.
Scott Hetzer’s father served in World War II, and he and his wife, Dana, have several family members who were in the military. Standing on a street corner, their sons Tyler and Parker waved American flags as the trailer passed.
“It’s a great honor to come and cheer them on,” said Dana Hetzer.
Upon arrival at the National War Memorial, Veterans received greetings from active-duty military personnel and their fellow Veterans.
It is not known when the honor flights will resume. Some veterans are over 90 and organizers know they may not have much time left.
âWe really felt the urgency to thank our vets as soon as we can and hope they can all fly with us when we are ready to fly,â said spokesperson Karyn Roelke.