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Three local veterans experience “Honor Flight” to Washington, D.C.

Three local veterans and their guardians made their way to Sioux Falls, Friday afternoon, August 26th. The next day they had an early morning flight to Washington, D.C. for their Midwest Honor Flight experience. Bill Winegar of Rapid City, Ron Gartner of Interior, and Pete Dunker of Wall were the honored veterans. 

The local group joined a total of 86 veterans, their guardians, and 20 employees at the Sheridan Sioux Falls & Convention Center for a Friday evening meal and program. “The banquet in Sioux Falls was very nice,” said Ron Gartner. “A lady from the National Guard held a special roll call for all of us within the individual branches of the service that we were in - the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines."

The next morning, August 27th, they woke up at 3:30, had breakfast at 4:30, headed to the airport at 5:30, and proceeded on their journey to D.C. “Something that really surprised me was the fact that they had a wheelchair ready for every veteran going on the flight, if needed,” said Gartner.

All the veterans had to have a guardian with them, and Ron Gartner’s son Shannon joined him on the flight. Pete Dunker’s son Bruce was his guardian, and Bill Winegar had an Honor Flight volunteer guardian, Allison Albrecht. It was her second trip as a volunteer to D.C.

When we attended the first meeting for this trip, all three of us guys attended and decided to go on the same flight,” said Gartner. “You could assign yourself, with up to four people and their guardians, to be on the same flight. That was four years ago, but then Covid 19 hit and it postponed us for a while.” 

“We had an early shuttle to the Sioux Falls Airport and then landed in Washington, D.C. at about 8:30 Saturday morning,” said Pete Dunker.

Dunker was in the Navy from 1966-70, during Vietnam. Gartner enlisted in the Army in February of 1965. In November of 1966 he left for Vietnam and was in the 101st Airborne Division Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP). He was wounded on May 19, 1967, and got out of the hospital on June 10, 1968. Winegar was drafted into the Army in June of 1970. At that time, he was cutting hair with Earl Eliason in Philip. He went to Vietnam and worked in the artillery division. He came home in February of 1972 and continued in the barber profession.

"We arrived in D.C. and they had four buses ready to handle all of us on the plane,” said Dunker. “We stayed with the same bus throughout the tour. When we landed at the airport in D.C., as we approached the terminal, water trucks shot water over the plane, in honor of us veterans.” 

 “Our flight had a lot of Vietnam veterans, and several Korean veterans as well. It also included two World War II veterans and one veteran from Afghanistan, who due to health reasons, needed to be included in this flight,” said Dunker.

The group visited several memorials: World War II Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Navy - Merchant Marine Memorial, United States Navy Memorial, U.S. Air Force Memorial, Iwo Jima Memorial, and the Changing of the Guard - The Military Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. 

“Once we got on our individual buses, the first thing we attended was the Changing of the Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” said Bill Winegar. “It was awesome! Even though it was the second time I attended the changing of the guards, it was so very impressive to me. The guards are so in step, with nothing out of order, and very quiet. The command is the only thing that was said, and then one guard continues to march back and forth protecting the tomb, and it remains very quiet.”

“While we were at the Changing of the Guards, it was hotter that blazes that day,” said Dunker. “You couldn’t tell it was hot by the way the guards performed, they were very impressive.”

“Everything is very quiet when the guards leave the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers,” said Gartner. “We were told to listen really carefully for a special sound. When he marched off, he lightly scuffed his heal with every step he took, as a special salute for the honor flight veterans. It was pretty emotional for many of us, and very special to see the pride in all the veterans. The longer the day went, you could feel more pride coming out among us all. It made you real proud to be a part of this. The people there, made you feel very honored.”

“Every place we went we were so welcomed. A lot of school groups were holding up signs of welcome,” said Dunker.

“We were treated great, like royalty the whole time,” said Gartner. “They served us breakfast, dinner, and the evening meal. All along the streets in D.C. the people were waving and saluting us.”

“The thing that really got to me was all the people cheering, flags waiving, and the welcome that you felt . . . . It made us feel special,” said Winegar. It was an amazing experience.” It just so happened to be Bill Winegar’s birthday on the day of the trip and he heard the many voices of his fellow United States service veterans sing him happy birthday. “It was a great birthday gift,” said Winegar. 

“The World War II Memorial walkway was lined up with junior high and high school girls, with welcome signs and flags on both sides of the street,” said Gartner. "A guy dressed up like an officer, similar to General Patton would take pictures with those who wanted to.”

“The Korean Memorial was really impressive,” said Gartner, “no matter where you stand, one of the 19 men will be looking you in the eye. I really don’t want to put one memorial in front of the other, they all made a huge impression on me.” 

“The Marine Memorial was a very special one to see," said Gartner. "When the buses took us to the memorial, we came in facing the men holding up the flags, directly, and then we circled the memorial twice. The flag lowers and rises as you keep circling those men holding the flags. Some type of an optical illusion, but it was very impressive.” 

"The Vietnam Memorial holds on to my thoughts as that was where I was at during my time in the Army, and the wall is very impressive,” said Winegar. "What really hit me hard was the Korean Memorial . . . . . That presentation is beyond words.” Winegar had  had the chance to see it before, and then again this year. “Walking through the field . . . every veteran has got to have a feeling about that memorial, with those 19 soldiers walking through the field and looking in every direction,” said Bill Winegar. “I was in the artillery, and it was our job to protect those soldiers doing their jobs."  

In the early 1990s the Gartner family had a reunion in the D.C. area. A cousin of Ron’s worked for the Department of Defense and on behalf of the Gartner family, Ron had the opportunity to lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Midwest Honor Flight helps veterans from Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, Nebraska, and South Dakota. There are 123 Honor Flight sites within the United States. There are 23 organizations throughout the United States that put on these honor flights. Two other flights from the United States carrying veterans were in D.C. at the same time as the Sioux Falls group. 

“On our way back to South Dakota, in the plane, a young man got on the microphone and announced “mail call,” so all of us received a package from family, friends, and different people from around the area,” said Dunker.

“When we flew back into Sioux Falls at 8:30 that evening there was a great welcome at the airport, with a Scottish bagpipe player and school age groups greeting us,” said Dunker.

“Veteran groups of Motorcycle Patriot Riders, Highway Patrol, and City Police escorted us back to the convention center in Sioux Falls and the busses drove right into the event center. The whole north side of the Denny Sanford Premier Center was packed with family, friends, and supporters from all over,” said Gartner. “I recommend this trip to every veteran."

We all received a special gift when we arrived at the Sioux Falls Arena,” said Winegar. The Midwest Honor Flight gave each of the veterans a framed plaque that had their name, branch of service, and the words “Honorable Discharge.”


The Pioneer Review

221 E. Oak Street
Philip, SD 57567
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