More than a dozen Kirkwood-area veterans had a chance to remember, reflect and be honored for their service when they traveled to Washington, D.C., last month on an Honor Flight to see the nation's war memorials.
Honor Flight was created to honor America's war veterans and all of their sacrifices. As part of its mission, the nonprofit organization transports veterans, free of charge, to the capital to tour the war memorials and monuments that honor service members. Since its inception in 2005, Honor Flight has transported 98,500 veterans to Washington, D.C.
Of the 25 veterans from St. Louis who made the trip on Oct. 8, 17 of them were from Aberdeen Heights, a residential and assisted-living community in Kirkwood.
"We have had more than 500 veterans from Missouri who have traveled on Honor Flights over the past several years, and we believe this is the largest group of veterans from a single location," said Rolando Lopez, executive director of the Greater St. Louis Honor Flight.
On the day of the flight, Aberdeen Heights veterans left Kirkwood at 3 a.m. to catch an early flight at Lambert International Airport to Washington, D.C. They spent the day touring the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War memorials, as well as other memorials and monuments.
The World War II Memorial's Freedom Wall of 4,048 gold stars pays tribute to American lives lost at war, while dozens of battle names and military campaign destinations are also on display.
"It'll bring tears to your eyes," said Aberdeen Heights resident Richard Kloecker, 84, who served as a lieutenant in the Naval Reserves from 1955 to 1957.
Veterans also had an opportunity to visit Arlington National Cemetery and witness The Changing of the Guard.
"The Changing of the Guard was unbelievable - it was something you never forget," said Aberdeen Heights resident Bill Branson, 85, who served in the Army from 1950 to 1987, and was a general.
Before the veterans embarked on their Honor Flight, there was some question as to whether they would get to visit the memorials because of the government shutdown.
"The World War II monument was first (for us to visit) and we were greeted with a fence and a sign that said, 'Closed,'" Branson said. "But Rep. Ann Wagner, Sen. Claire McCaskill and Sen. Roy Blunt had cleared a path for us to go see the monument."
Aside from the Lincoln Memorial, which had been closed off with barricades, the veterans got to visit all of the other memorials.
Although the veterans enjoyed getting to experience the memorials and monuments during their trip, it was the fanfare of applause and thank yous they received from friends and family, past and present service members, and even strangers that touched them the most.
"When we got to the airport there were people in uniform to meet and greet us, the USO was there, the media was there ... it was a big deal," Branson said. "Then when we got home, there were active duty military members saluting us, and there were about 400 people at Lambert airport."
Kloecker couldn't believe the welcome they received, especially in Washington and when they arrived back home.
"That was really something," he said. "Everywhere we landed we had a tremendous welcome - it was very humbling."
Aberdeen Heights resident Paul Cherry, 90, who was drafted in June of 1942 and assigned to the Army's 13th Airborne Division, was also overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers.
"There were Honor Flight volunteers, but there were a lot of people at the airport for a flight who didn't know us and walked up to us, shook our hands and thanked us," he said.
The same was true when they were in Washington.
"People went out of their way to thank us, and many were non-veterans," Cherry said, adding that the pilots on the plane even made a special announcement alerting passengers the veterans were onboard.
When Aberdeen Heights resident Kenneth Berry, 90, who served in the Marines from 1943 to 1946, was asked what part of the Honor Flight was the most special, he said: "The whole thing."
The veterans were touched by the gratitude others extended.
"This showed me there are still a lot of people who remember us and revere us," Kloecker said. "This showed me that liberty is not free and that combat comes at a great cost - and that we have to let the young people of today know this."
"Our job now is to educate young people so that they may not forget what this country has done for them and the sacrifices we have made," the retired general said.
Many of the veterans, including Cherry, are already doing that. Cherry is one of several of the Aberdeen Heights veterans who talks to local elementary school students about war history and his service. He is also one of the veterans being interviewed by a Meramec Community College student for a class project.
"Everything I say is a surprise to him," Cherry said of his interviews with the student, noting he's glad he can give him a glimpse of history.
Meramec English instructor Gina Bush said students in her class interviewing veterans for their service learning project are getting more than a history lesson.
"They have a whole new respect for the veterans and the sacrifices they've made for our country," she said. "They're thankful for the opportunity to hear the stories from a first-hand source. They've gained a great respect for the veterans, but they've also gained friendships. One of my students made a fleece blanket for her veteran, others have gone out to lunch together and they've met with them not just to talk about their service, but about life in general."
Meramec student Suzanne Taylor said the project gave her a new perspective on the World War II era - one different from the stories her grandfather told.
"Two men could have been fighting the same war, but have completely different experiences," she said. "I really enjoyed it and I'm happy our class is doing this because it gives veterans that don't tell their story very often a chance to tell their stories. That generation is going to be gone soon and it's really important for them to talk about their experiences before it's over."
Kloecker was one of only two medical officers assigned to 54 ships in the Navy's Pacific Amphibious Force. He was also the only medical officer for 27 ships during Arctic operations.
"I had a very, very interesting time," he said. "I always loved the ocean, and I was sent across the equator and the Arctic Circle at different times during my service. I also had to go between two ships on a pulley system - and that was no fun."
Kloecker spent two years in the Navy and lived in several areas of St. Louis before moving into Aberdeen Heights.
Branson served more than three decades in the Army, working his way up through the ranks to become a general.
"I went through lots of officer academy schools and served with a lot of good people, but I always felt I did not do my part because I did not serve in combat," he said. "If I did anything, it was that 13 years ago I started the Homeless Veterans Burial Program in St. Louis."
The program is now in 36 cities across the country, and there have been 97 services in St. Louis alone, said Branson, who keeps the records for all of the cities that have the program.
After Branson's time in the Army, he moved back to St. Louis and worked for Hoffmeister Mortuary for several years.
Cherry was trained to be a paratrooper in the Army's 13th Airborne Division.
"We had to be ready to drop in places," he said. "The whole division trained for combat, but we never fired a shot."
Cherry left the Army in 1945, married in 1949 and moved to the Kirkwood area in the 1960s to work at Monsanto.
Berry and three of his friends enlisted in the Marines and attended boot camp in San Diego in 1943. He was then sent to Oklahoma to study aircraft maintenance.
"Then we shipped out of San Diego and went to the Pacific," he said. "We were on patrol constantly. We never got into combat, but we were really close to it. When the peace treaty was signed, we could see the signing of it aboard the USS Missouri through binoculars we had on our ship."