SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) –Midwest Honor Flight pays tribute to local Veterans with an all-expense-paid trip to our nation’s capital.

“Once in a lifetime, there’s nothing like an Honor Flight. Veterans have gone and have said ‘oh, I’ve been to DC before, I don’t need to go again’, but an Honor Flight is different, it’s a different experience for you to be able to see all these memorials alongside your fellow Veterans,” Midwest Honor Flight President & CEO Aaron Van Beek said.

Aaron Van Beek is President & CEO of Midwest Honor Flight, which he started in 2017, while attending college.

“My mom was the one I first threw the idea at, I was like ‘hey, what do you think about starting an Honor Flight?’,” Aaron Van Beek said.

“My 20-year-old, at the time, was home from a college break and he came up the stairs and, I’ll never forget, said to me ‘hey, what do you think about bringing Honor Flight to our area?’, Chris Van Beek said.

“That look in his eyes, I could tell he was going to do it regardless of what I said,” Chris added.

Chris Van Beek is Aaron’s mom and medical coordinator, and has been part of every mission to date.

“Just to see these Veterans and their faces, to hear their stories. I always say if we don’t listen to these stories, when our Veterans pass those stories will pass as well,” Chris Van Beek said.

“Thought we’d do one or two flights and now we’ve successfully flown 13 missions with four planned in 2023 and over 1,000 Veterans being flown and over 700 waiting to go still,” Aaron Van Beek said.

An impressive run, but it wasn’t Aaron’s original plan.

“Ended up graduating from Dordt, swore I was going to move away, got a teaching job in Sioux Center, continued with the Honor Flight and now it’s turned into a full-time position,” Aaron Van Beek said.

Aaron juggled teaching and volunteering for four years before becoming CEO in July, 2022. He hasn’t served, but is part of a military-rich family.

“I actually have two grandfathers that served honorably in World War II, as well as a father-in-law in Vietnam and a daughter who’s now serving with the Iowa National Guard as a combat medic,” Chris Van Beek said.

“Grandpa’s Vietnam, Army, who’s finally after about three years, four years of me being in the position I am with Honor Flight, finally sent in his application, he’s going to join us this spring as well on a flight,” Aaron Van Beek said.

Aaron’s youngest sister is a freshman in high school. 15-year-old Elsie has also been a part of Midwest Honor Flight since day one.

“I’ve been the Patriotic Princess, so basically I hand out dog tags to Veterans on their flight home,” 15-year-old Elsie Van Beek said. “It’s always very emotional, they’re always really grateful, and yeah it’s a really great experience,” Elsie added.

It’s a role she cherishes, but…

“She’s been bugging me since we started this, ‘hey, I want to go on one of these’,” Aaron Van Beek said.

The catch? You have to be at least 18 years old to travel as a guardian.

“She said ‘I really want to go’, I said raise $50,000, sponsor a flight and I’ll get you on a flight,” Aaron Van Beek said.

“And she said ‘game on’, and that was 18 months ago and she has raised over $70,000,” Chris Van Beek said.

What started as a joke is now mission 15, Elsie Honors.

“She took my challenge to heart and now I’ve got to take her on a flight,” Aaron Van Beek said.

Elsie sold wreaths for Wreaths Across America, but raised a majority of the money selling cupcakes.

“Over 12,000 cupcakes,” Elsie Van Beek said.

“Our kitchen will never be the same. I always say the powdered sugar and butter that have come and gone from our house is amazing,” Chris Van Beek said.

A sweet treat that has earned Elsie a seat on the May 31st flight to DC.

“I want to hear the stories of the Veterans, talk with them, build a closer connection than I might have with the dog tags, and just having a day full of respect for them,” Elsie Van Beek said.

The adventure won’t end with Mission 15. Elsie is in Scouts and plans to raise more money for Midwest Honor Flight as her eagle project.

“Maybe I could sponsor another flight. Probably won’t be $50,000, but as much as I possibly can,” Elsie Van Beek said.

And every dollar counts for Midwest Honor Flight.

“Every $853 raised is a spot for a Veteran, and of course the Veteran doesn’t pay, that’s all of our fundraising, our grants, our donations that we receive go directly to getting our Veterans out to DC,” Aaron Van Beek said.

“Our mission and our purpose, to bring honor, closure, and respect to these Veterans that so desperately deserve that time an opportunity and to think that my family is the one that started this is amazing,” Chris Van Beek said.