In June, Dawn Aagesen accompanied her 90-year-old grandfather on Honor Flight Chicago, honoring the World War II veteran with a long overdue hero’s welcome home.
The Honor Flight takes veterans to Washington D.C. to visit and reflect at their memorials and then returns them home to receive the hero’s welcome they never had. The inaugural flight was May 2005. Veterans are chosen based on a first-come, first-serve basis with World War II veterans receiving precedence. Veterans enjoy the honor flight experience free of charge; volunteers pay their own way.
Aagesen’s grandfather, Al Evinger, was on the waiting list for about 18 months before his turn came to experience his honor flight.
“The experience was so cool. I was totally blown away. I can only imagine how the vets were feeling,” Aagesen said. “The day was all about safety, safety, safety and pure enjoyment,” Aagesen said.
The day began at 4:30 a.m. when the veterans and volunteers arrived at Midway airport. The veterans were issued grey honor flight embroidered polo shirts and the volunteers, including Aagesen, wore lime green.
While awaiting departure, the veterans were entertained as the Legacy Girls performed Andrews sisters songs.
When the flight arrived at Dulles International Airport, the veterans were greeted by firemen dousing their plane with a water salute. Hundreds of people including veterans and Scouts welcomed them.
Next, Honor Flight boarded a coach bus and drove through Arlington Cemetery, the Iwo Jima Memorial and then the World War II Memorial where there was a special ceremony involving the color guard, servicemen in full uniform and Taps playing at the end. A wreath was then dedicated to this Honor Flight and placed in front of Illinois, Aagesen said.
Other stops for the day included: the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Korean Memorial and the Air and Space Museum. Between stops, veterans watched a video describing the history and making of the World War II Memorial.
There was more entertainment during dinner at Dulles as the veterans enjoyed music from the World War II era and watched dancers perform the jitterbug and lindy hop.
“What soldiers look forward to most while at war is receiving mail from home,” Aagesen explained. On the return flight to Midway, each veteran received a stack of mail. Aagesen estimated each veteran received 100 letters from friends, family, elementary school students, President Obama, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, senators and others thanking them for their service and bravery.
Aagesen described the welcome received when Honor Flight returned to Chicago:
"Firemen were lining the tunnel off the plane. Servicemen and women were waving flags and cheering. There was a bagpipe band. Everyone was in full salute. There were Vietnam vets high-fiving the vets. There were at least 3,000 people waiting in the baggage claim area," she said.
“I was on the verge of balling. My grandfather was smiling and shaking hands with everyone. It was so neat,” Aagesen said. “My grandfather isn’t too happy a guy and usually keeps to himself. It was wonderful to see him smile and feel appreciated…He’s a minimalist but really enjoyed this experience,” Aagesen described.
The flight landed at 8:40 p.m. and Aagesen and Evinger left the airport after 10:30 p.m.
Evinger was a medic in France, Austria and Germany, arriving about 18 months after D-Day. Aagesen said Evinger tries to forget the war ever happened and doesn’t like to talk about his service. Aagesen said this experience was important to her grandfather because it was about “coming to terms and seeing and experiencing this with others.”
Evinger met his bride through a friend in basic training, who then became his brother-in-law, LeRoy Petersohn. Petersohn, also a medic, helped liberate the Mauthausen concentration camp, saving a mom and her six-week-old baby. This baby is now a doctor in California and considered part of the Petersohn family. The story is highlighted in Michael Hirsh’s book The Liberators. Petersohn died about two years ago.
For the duration of the honor flight, Evinger wore Petersohn’s hat, which was inscribed with the insignia of their division.
Aagesen’s stepfather, a Korean War veteran, was to accommodate Evinger on the Honor Flight. However, he surpassed the 65-year age limit to serve as a volunteer before Evinger was chosen to participate. Aagesen was thrilled at the opportunity to accompany her grandfather.
“It takes a lot to overwhelm me, but I was so overwhelmed and touched,” Aagesen said.
Evinger, a man of few words, said he was “excited” to be part of the honor flight and that the experience was “impressive.”
“I was overwhelmed by the welcome at Midway. It seemed that everyone turned up,” Evinger said.