U.P. Honor Flight departs Wednesday

Daily Press file photo Vietnam veteran Richard Pichette makes a rubbing of his cousin’s name at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington DC during an Honor Flight in September 2018. U.P. Honor Flight’s Mission XVI will depart from the Delta County Airport Wednesday morning.

ESCANABA – Mission XVI will depart Escanaba Wednesday morning, way beyond what local Honor Flight organizers ever expected to accomplish.

“Never in our dreams did we think there would be this many flights,” long-time volunteer Paula Waeghe, of Gladstone, told a group of guardians who attended a recent informational session at Quality Inn.

Waeghe has flown on each mission and will be aboard the Sun Country jet when it departs Escanaba at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday. The flight returns at 8:30 p.m. and family, friends and strangers are encouraged to greet the veterans upon their return, which has always been a memorable highlight for those returning from the spectacular trip.

With Waeghe and Honor Flight director Scott Knauf will be 77 veterans, two World War II veterans (ages 99 and 93), 22 Korea War veterans and 52 Vietnam War veterans. Three of the veterans are women.

Each veteran will have a guardian (age 18-70) to help them maneuver through an exhausting but very exhilarating day

One of those guardians will be doing triple duty that day. Jimmer Maki, who will graduate from Gladstone High School Saturday, will perform with his Gladstone bandmates in the Barb VanRooy Hangar prior to the group’s boarding process. Then he will join with his two veterans, Gary Gerber of Iron Mountain and Carl Krenn of Niagara, Wis. for the flight to Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.

It will be the eighth time Maki will join the Gladstone band in their pre-flight performance. He is taking the flight courtesy of Marine Corps League Auxiliary Detachment 444 of Escanaba, which donated the $500 fee required of each guardian.

Waeghe helped coordinate his selection, noting “I knew he was a special student and a mature guy.”

Maki, one of the school’s top students and a bowler on the high school team, said he was flabbergasted to learn he would be a guardian. “Absolutely, that would be awesome,” he said at the recent guardian’s session.

He will miss the school’s honor’s night because of the trip, but said “the decision was not that hard to make. The honor flight will be such a unique experience.”

His uncle, Paul Maki, served in Vietnam and his grandfather was a World War II veteran. His dad died in 2018. This will be his second trip to D.C. after visiting the area on a school field trip several years ago.

He is especially looking forward to watching the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery and seeing the hallowed USMC Iwo Jima statue. The USMC silent drill team will also perform by the revered statue, the first time in several years the Honor Flight group will actually visit one of the city’s pre-eminent locations.

They will be among six stops while in the nation’s capital. The tentative schedule begins with a police-escorted drive from the airport to the U.S. Navy Memorial, followed by a visit to the World War II Memorial, the Korea-Vietnam-Lincoln Memorial, Arlington Cemetery, Air Force Memorial and Iwo Jima statue.

The Upper Peninsula group will meet with a mid-Michigan Honor Flight group at the World War II memorial. A Medal of Honor recipient will be with the mid-Michigan delegation. Scott Lewellyn of Iron Mountain, who played taps at the Vietnam soldier’s statue in 2017, will play taps at the World War II Memorial.

Waeghe used a slide show to help explain the trip to the guardians. “This will be a life-changing experience,” she told them. “Fasten your seat belts. You are in for an enjoyable ride.”

The veterans and guardians will leave from the Quality Inn at 5 a.m. Wednesday with an escort to the airport from police and fire departments and the Patriot Guard motorcycle riders. Participants who do not take one of the three buses should be at the airport by 5:10 a.m. for pre-flight processing.

Knauf said there are names of 380 veterans on the waiting list for future flights, with World War II and Korean veterans first in line. Thus far, 1,155 veterans have flown out of Escanaba.

Waeghe said she has remained a vital part of the Honor Flight program because of “my love for veterans. I have a high respect for veterans,” noting her father, Warren Eschenbach of Wausau, 95, is a World War II veteran.

She said her husband and daughter are history buffs and said on one Honor Flight, her husband Jeff found the grave of a veteran buried at Arlington because of an acquaintance who had knowledge of the coordinates at the cemetery. “We found it,” she said. “I love all the camaraderie of it (called Honor Flight magic) and the special stories I hear of the veterans.”

A highlight of one trip was meeting Sen. Robert Dole, a noted World War II veteran.

Underlining a theme of Honor Flights, she added “it is never too late to say thank you.”

The Quality Inn will host a facebook viewing of activites in Washington during the day Wednesday for spouses of veterans on the trip and for the general public. There will also be viewings at Peter White Library in Marquette and Forsythe Library in Gwinn.

Viewers can also access the trip at home or work by going on Facebook at Upper Peninsula Honor Flight.