This week, a 21-year-old senior at Dordt College and dozens of volunteers led 85 veterans from South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota on the very first mission of Midwest Honor Flight. 

From banquets to big welcomes and emotional visits to war memorials in Washington, D.C., the vets were treated to a VIP experience that was long overdue. 

At a picturesque local winery in Iowa, dozens of anxious war veterans gathered together at a banquet ahead of their one “final tour with honor.” 

“I think it’s wonderful. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” Korean War Veteran Lowell Pearson from Alcester said. 

Led by ambitious 21-year-old college student Aaron Van Beek, the vets of World War II, Korea and Vietnam couldn’t wait to stand up and be a part of Midwest Honor Flight’s first trip.  

With a wait list of veterans hoping to get to the memorials in the nation’s capital, Van Beek has made it his duty to fly them there despite his busy schedule. 

“I find time. This is definitely something that’s worth it to me. It’s my way of giving back to them because they were willing to give their life for my freedoms that I have today,” Van Beek said. 

Some of those veterans never experienced a hearty welcome home like this following their service. Volunteer Kathy Dykstra says it was quite the opposite for Vietnam era vets. 

“One of them says to me, ‘Last time I got off the plane, I was spat upon.’ So for him to hear those claps was amazing for him,” Dykstra said. 

Dykstra signed up to be a guardian in honor of her late grandfather. 

Iowa Lt. Governor and Hawarden-native Adam Gregg got to spend the special day with his grandpa, one of seven World War II veterans on the trip. 

“They’re getting royal treatment here and they absolutely deserve it,” Adam Gregg said. 

From the incredibly choreographed changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to the fountains of the World War II Memorial, the 85 veterans were swiftly escorted by local police from spot to spot.

Matt Holsen: Does this give you incredible pride for your country?
Gregg: You ain’t kidding. It does. That’s exactly what it was designed to do to. We’re only here for a day. We saw a lot of different things. You walk away with a certain kind of pride that you didn’t have. You just took everything for granted. Now it’s more into my heart than it has been for some time.

Bill Borchers was one of many with a heavy heart at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. The Army vet from Sheldon came here 10 years ago with his family. 

“They looked at it and I just walked straight through. Couldn’t bear to look at it. But it’s better now, a little healing does good,” Borchers said. 

“Makes it worth all the hours that our entire team has put together to make sure that this mission happens and give them their final tour here in D.C.,” Van Beek said. 

As long as Midwest Honor Flight can raise enough funds, they hope to do a trip like this every spring and fall until every veteran gets a chance to come to Washington, D.C.

“Until we run out of funding or applications, whichever comes first. Hopefully the applications come first before the funding does but, we’ll get there,” Van Beek said. 

The stories of this trip from the veterans and volunteers who experienced it will hopefully spread throughout their local communities. That should help drum up support for future endeavors. 

“Oh my gosh. This is such an amazing experience. If you have a family member who would enjoy a trip like this and who hasn’t been to the memorials before, do everything you can to get them signed up and do everything you can to volunteer to accompany them,” Adam Gregg said. 

Even if you don’t have a family member needing to go, you can sign up to help a stranger deserving of this honor. 

“Love hearing them talk, their stories. Laughter. They just love laughter and joy. They are just so joyful to be here. So happy,” Dykstra said. 

And with cheers from beginning to end, it will leave a lasting impact on some of the bravest members of KELOLAND. 

“You know that kind of sentiment I didn’t have and wasn’t fortunate enough to get in World War II. I got it this time and geez, it made a lot of difference to me,” Glenn Gregg said. 

Van Beek hopes to take another group of veterans on Mission Two of Midwest Honor Flight next spring. He says there are enough veterans wanting to go; it will just depend on how much money can be raised before then.