CLINTONVILLE - "Fantastic," said 85-year-old veteran Jerry Eckers, eyes dancing with excitement. "I found out what the word fantastic means. I just keep using that word."
Eckers was explaining his experiences during the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight he took in early June. Eckers, along with his twin brother and other World War II veterans, were participants in the program.
Stars and Stripes Honor Flight is an organization dedicated to transporting local WWII veterans to Washington, D.C. to see the memorials built in their honor, according to its website at www.starsandstripeshonorflight.org. Its mission is to offer the vets a memorable and rewarding tour of honor of the nation's capitol, free of charge. It is, the organization states, a small way to say "thank you" to the many veterans in our area for their sacrifice. It is one hub of the greater National Honor Flight Network.
"We left Milwaukee a little after 4 a.m. June 2 and arrived back in Milwaukee about 9 p.m. on June 3," said Eckers of the trip. "I've never seen anything like it in my 85 years. There was no pushing, no scrambling. Everything was just perfect. We would get out and see the monuments, and get back in to the bus to a big box with lunch or supper.
"I've just never seen anything like that in my life," he emphasized.
Eckers said they toured every monument that represented a war that the United States participated in, from the early 1800s to present time. Anyone who knows or has toured Washington, D.C. knows this is no small feat; it's an arduous undertaking, especially given the health and physical abilities of many honorable veterans. The organization, however, has put much thought into ensuring the veterans who attend are looked after and helped in every way possible.
"There were people there who explained everything to us," said Eckers. "Before we left, my twin brother Don, who is from Germantown, and I were asked if we needed a wheelchair. We didn't think we needed it. When we got to Milwaukee we were each paired with two guardians. They made sure you were where you were supposed to be and were absolutely wonderful. They recommended we would be better to get wheelchairs, because we would be making 18 to 20 miles on the tours. I'm sure glad we did."
Eckers served in WWII and the Korean War. In WWII he said he received his number to go into the service in the Navy. He and his brother were corpsmen at the Naval Hospital in San Diego. At the end of the war, he came home and was going to use his service as a catalyst to attend college. He joined the reserves.
Then the Korean War broke out. Eckers stated that the Marine Corps reserve and Naval Reserves in Green Bay were the first two offices that were called up to serve. Eckers found out he would be serving as a Marine. He was a member of the Howe Co., 3rd battalion, 5th Marines. While over in Korea, as Eckers explained, he was standing when he should have been down - as his group was hit with mortars, and Eckers "picked up a couple of mortar shells."
It's no surprise then, given what he endured, that the memorial to catch his tears - as he described it - was the Korean War statue depicting six Marines dressed in winter clothing. "It brought things back," remembered Eckers. "It was so real to me. It brought tears to my eyes, and very frankly I'm proud of it."
Eckers had one child when he left, and his second of six children, was born while he was gone. His child was two years old when he returned from Korea.
His niece was the impetus to getting a chance to take the trip; she submitted the forms for her father and uncle. To date, Stars and Stripes Honor Flight has flown over 1,000 veterans. They can fly up to 300 veterans at a time, thanks to the charter of a 747.
The trip was certainly life changing for Eckers. And his year of amazing experiences doesn't end with the trip. Eckers and his wife Blanche will celebrate their 64th year of marriage next month. Born and raised in Milwaukee, Jerry came to De Pere in high school, met Blanche and "the good Lord blessed us with our children. We have a real good life," he added.
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