U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial May 2019

U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, VA.

The 2019 Nebraska Purple Heart Flight wrapped up late Friday night, May 24, at the Durham Museum with a rally and welcome home ceremony that every veteran deserves.

This year’s flight of honor was the 13th flight put on by Bill and Evonne Williams, who run Patriotic Productions. This year, the focus of the flight was placed on veterans from the more recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf War who have received a Purple Heart.

“It is very difficult to reach out to the younger veterans in today’s society,” Bill stated. “They are not largely involved in our veteran groups like the VFW or American Legion and there is no simple solution to tracking down our veterans from more recent conflicts to encourage them to join on a flight. You throw in the extra layer of wanting to honor Purple Heart veterans from recent conflicts and you start to narrow the field.”

And with that, the Williamses decided to make this flight more than just a Purple Heart Flight of Honor. It was a flight of honor filled with a very special mix of veterans and Gold Star families from all ages. The flight brought together generations of people from all different circumstances and backgrounds.

The Williamses are what you might call “old pros” at organizing these flights.

“What most don’t realize is the amount of planning and preparation that goes into pulling this off,” they stated. “And every time, we try to provide the best possible experience for our veterans. We have learned over the years what to do and what not to do. Every flight is rewarding, but ultimately we hope we can provide some healing to those who might have wounds that can’t be seen and show our appreciation for all the sacrifices that have been made.”

The event kicked off the night before with an honorary banquet, which was emceed by Hal Daub, former U.S. Congressman, Omaha mayor and University of Nebraska Regent. Daub wasn’t the only dignitary to be featured during the flight of honor. U.S. Reps. Don Bacon and Jeff Fortenberry were in attendance, and Gov. Pete Ricketts provided a special thank you message from the people of Nebraska to all veterans and Gold Star families.

The entertainment for the night was provided by Bobby Henline, “The Well Done Comedian.” Henline —a veteran of Desert Storm by age 19 — was inspired to re-enlist in the Army after 9/11. He deployed to Iraq three times with the 82nd Airborne Division and the 3rd Armored Calvary regiment. On April 7, 2007, Henline’s Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb just north of Bagdad. Of the five men in the vehicle, Henline was the only survivor. More than 38 percent of his body was burned and his head was burned to the skull. He spent six months in the hospital fighting for his life, and after two years, he had to have his left hand amputated.

Henline’s scars are a constant reminder of that day, but he has a unique perspective that he shares as a comedian and motivational speaker. Henline’s self-deprecating comedy was a lighthearted and humorous addition to the entertaining night, and his positive message was inspiring for the large crowd of military families.

The following morning was started with a very early wakeup call of 2 a.m. and buses loaded by 2:30. The flight landed in Washington D.C. by 7:30 a.m. and the passengers were greeted in the airport by a thunder of applause, patriotic choirs, color guards and cheering spectators.

Once the buses were loaded up, it was off to the sites. The day included tours of Arlington National Cemetery, Iwo Jima War Memorial, 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon, World War II Memorial and a visit to the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam and Korean memorials all found on the National Mall.

The visit to the Lincoln Memorial had a special display organized by the Williamses with Patriotic Productions. Over the Memorial Day weekend, the “Remembering Our Fallen Tribute Towers” were proudly displayed along the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. “Remembering Our Fallen” is a photographic war memorial that honors the country’s military troops who have fallen from the War on Terror (Sept. 11, 2001 to present). Unlike permanent memorials, it is designed to travel and includes both military and personal photos of each fallen soldier. It is in honor of all who have fallen and that they may not be forgotten.

After a long day of touring the Nation’s Capital, it was back on the plane. The plane was greeted on the tarmac in Omaha by Ollie the Trolley and a crew of fire and rescue to help the special cargo get unloaded.

From there, the group was paraded downtown and welcomed back at the Durham Museum. The flight was delayed a couple hours in Washington, D.C., but even though plans changed last minute, the patriotism was on full display with a large crowd welcoming back the group and cheering them on like rock stars.

A patriotic cap on the day was out on the street where the Omaha Police Department Pipes and Drums played in the background while each soldier and Gold Star family walked past a full salute and color guard.

Mike Wood can be reached at mike.wood@lee.net.