After more than a half-century since their service to this country, Homer residents Don Arseneau, Dick Lewis and Gail Sorensen received some well-deserved honor. Along with 20 other veterans from World War II and the Korean War, they participated in an Honor Flight from Alaska to Washington, D.C., April 26-May 1.
The itinerary included flights from Anchorage to Sterling, Va., via Portland, Ore. Day 3 consisted of visiting the World War II, Korean and Vietnam war memorials, the Lincoln Memorial, Roosevelt Memorial Park and Arlington Cemetery. The following day the group visited the Smithsonian Museums and toured Washington, D.C., before returning to Alaska, with another overnight in Portland.
At each stop welcoming military and veteran groups turned out in force. Travelers in airports applauded and reached out to shake hands. Bagpipers played. The media snapped photos.
“I had tears in my eyes. … It just got better and better,” said Arseneau, 85, who served from 1950-1954 as a U.S. Navy flight engineer, South Pacific Fleet-Japan, during the Korean War.
Lewis, 87, a pilot and naval aviator in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, was surprised by the outpouring of appreciation.
“It showed you that somebody cared,” he said.
“The whole thing was an adventure,” said Sorensen, 90, who was among the 1946 class of nursing graduates from Abbott Hospital in Minneapolis, Minn., and served with the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps during World War II.
On the Portland-to-Anchorage flight, a “mail call” delivered more messages of appreciation. There were photographs of students holding American flags. Colored pictures came from youngsters too young to write. Correspondence came from family members, friends and strangers.
“I want to thank you personally for your service to this country. … And last but not least I thank you for being my dad,” Susan Arseneau wrote to her father.
An eight-year-old Anchorage student whom Lewis had never met wrote, “Thank you for serving our country. I hope you stay safe, well and happy. God bless you so you may always, always stay well.”
Summing up what she has learned from her grandmother, Ithaca Sorensen wrote, “Most importantly, you taught me through your example to be kind to people from all walks of life, and to keep an open heart and a full cookie jar.”
Back in Anchorage, the travelers were surprised by a welcome-home from Gov. Bill Walker.
“We should never take for granted the great sacrifice of our veterans and active military members as we remember that freedom is not free,” Walker wrote in his Facebook posting of meeting the veterans.
“Freedom is not free” is engraved on a wall of the Korean War Veterans Memorial. It also was on pins given to Honor Flight participants. Other gifts included hats, jackets and Honor Flight T-shirts; quilts made by members of Quilts of Valor, a nation-wide foundation that provides quilts to service members and veterans who have been touched by war; and fleece lap blankets made by a woman whose husband was on a previous Honor Flight.
Honor Flights began in 2005, with 12 World War II veterans flown from Ohio to Washington, D.C., to see the World War II Memorial. Since then, the Honor Flight Network has spread to 44 states including Alaska and flown more than 159,000 veterans to the nation’s capital, according to information on the network’s website.
“It’s basically a way to say ‘thank you for your service,’” said Mike Morawitz, first vice commander of American Legion Post 16 in Homer.
“Alaska has been involved since January 2013 and our first flight was October 2013,” said Deedee Robb of Last Frontier Honor Flight based in Wasilla.
Two flights are scheduled from Alaska per year, with preference currently given to World War II and Territorial Guard veterans. To emphasize the selection process, Robb noted that 640 World War II veterans die each day.
“And then we go to Korean War veterans and by ages and degree of health,” she said.
Veterans’ costs for the five days of travel are paid by Last Frontier Honor Flight, with support from businesses, raffles and donations. Guardians accompany each veteran, with the cost per guardian $1,000.
Acknowledgment of the veterans’ service has extended beyond events organized by Honor Flight. It has come through sharing the experience with others. Sorensen was accompanied by close friend Sheryl Sotelo of Homer and joined in Washington by her grandson, Justin Sorensen of New York. Lewis was accompanied by his granddaughter Kayla Vaught of Homer and met by other family members in Washington. For Arseneau, who was accompanied by Pam Breckridge of Homer, the biggest impact has been a deepened sense of camaraderie among veterans and the increased awareness of others.
“We went out to Land’s End and I was wearing my Korean veteran hat and this young man extended his hand and said, ‘Thank you.’ Wearing this hat is worth getting to the ones that don’t know about the Korean War. It’s worth it to me,” he said.
For more information:
• Honor Flight, honorflight.org
• Last Frontier Honor Flight, lastfrontierhonorflight.com
• Quilts of Valor Foundation, qovf.org
• “Cadet Nurses Stand By,” by Gail Sorensen, available at the Homer Public Library
McKibben Jackinsky is a freelance writer who lives in Homer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Memorial Day Services
American Legion Post 16, Homer; American Legion Post 18, Ninilchik; Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10221, Anchor Point
Hickerson Memorial Cemetery 10 a.m.
American Legion Cemetery
Memorial Day events:
Ninilchik Emergency Services Memorial Weekend Pancake Breakfast at the Ninilchik Fairgrounds
Saturday, 7 a.m.-1 p.m. Sunday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Cost: $10 for adults, $5 for kids 7 and under. Benefits emergency services. More info: 907-567-3342.
American Legion Cemetery, services at 2 p.m.
VFW Post 10221
Burgers and fries
VFW Post 10221
Horseshoe tournament; sign up at 12:30 p.m., starts at 1 p.m.
Barbecue and live music
Community pancake breakfast at Anchor Point Senior Citizens, 8:30-10:30 a.m. Cost: $10. Veterans eat free. More info: 907-235-7786.
VFW Post 10221
Catfish and halibut fish fry, 3 p.m.
Anchor Point Cemetery, services at noon
Hickerson Cemetery services, 10 a.m.
Down East Saloon, barbecue. More info: 235-6002.
8th Annual Human Powered Fishing Derby
Starts Friday at 8 a.m., ends Sunday at 4 p.m.
Cost to enter: $40 per fishing rod
Sign up at the Seldovia Pavilion on the waterfront.
Awards ceremony on Sunday at 4 p.m. at the pavilion, with a halibut fish fry
Grand prize: Dagger Kayak, a single-person touring kayak, valued at $3,500.
Door prizes throughout the weekend
Four categories: king salmon, halibut, black bass and grey cod. Catch any of those four fish and weigh them in officially, put your name in the hat for the grand prize:
“We’re getting away from the big fish, big prize,” organizer Tim Dillon said.
Two Homer residents, Dan Cole and Don Ridle, will join a statewide motorcycle ride to the Alaska Veterans Memorial at Byers Lake, located at mile 147 on Parks Highway in Denali State Park. As they ride up, they will join with other American Legion, VFW and miscellaneous motorcycle riders from Kenai, Seward, Anchorage and Wasilla.