“It’s an experience I’ll never forget,” was how Fennimore resident Ralph Wienkes described his trip on the Badger Honor Flight on Saturday, Oct. 5.
Ralph was among nearly 90 veterans from Wisconsin who took off from Dane County Regional Airport to Washington D.C.
The Badger Honor Flight is the Wisconsin branch of the National Honor Flight network.
“The purpose of the Honor Flight is to ensure that World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War and terminally ill Veterans, from any war have the opportunity to see the memorials erected in their honor,” the Badger Honor Flight website states. “Everything is free to the Veterans because of how much they have sacrificed for this great country already.”
The Honor Flight was the brainchild of Earl Morse a retired Air Force Captain and pilot from Ohio, who worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The idea quickly took off following the completion of the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. when Morse found himself discussing the memorial frequently with his patients. As the weeks went by, the idea of Veterans visiting the memorial continued to blossom in Morse’s mind. Morse decided to pursue his fellow pilots and ask if they had any interest in helping him fly Veterans out to the D.C.
After his first meeting, Morse found himself with eleven licensed pilots. All of whom stepped up to volunteer and the Honor Flight was born.
The very first Honor Flight Tour took place in 2005. Six small planes took off out of Ohio carrying 12 WWII Vets to visit our nation’s capital. The response, just as it is today, was overwhelmingly positive.
As the months went on, more flights were scheduled and by the end of the first year 137 WWII Veterans had been transported to their memorial.
The next year, commercial flights became the mode of travel of choice as so many Veterans had jumped on the waiting list. This change allowed another 300 Veterans to complete the journey in 2006.
The first Honor Flights established in Wisconsin were the Freedom Honor Flight operating out of La Crosse and the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight in Milwaukee in 2008.
After participating as guardians in other Honor Flights, local volunteers decided to form another hub in Madison to serve Veterans from surrounding counties including Grant. Those volunteers began meeting in early 2009 and adopted the name “Badger Honor Flight” with the first official flight under that name taking place in 2010. In the time it’s been in operation, the Badger Honor Flight has had the privilege of flying over 2,700 Veterans to Washington D.C.
Ralph put his application in around two years ago to participate in the flight.
“When they called and said I was going to be on the flight, it was pretty exciting,” Ralph said. “They said the wait is up to three years now.”
The Badger Honor Flight website notes that the program is “actively flying Veterans from World War II, Korean War Era and Vietnam War Era Veterans. Priority is given in chronological order of conflicts, with exceptions being made for TLC (Their Last Chance) veterans from any conflict or war. Currently we are only accepting applications from Veterans who served in the following conflicts or terminally ill Veterans from any conflict/war. WWII: Dec. 7, 1941-Dec. 31, 1946; Korean War: June 25, 1950-Jan. 31, 1955; Vietnam War: Feb. 28, 1961-May 7, 1975.”
Born in Highland, Ralph later moved to Livingston. It was there he attended a one room country school until sixth grade when he moved to Fennimore.
He attended the Fennimore Community High School, starting the year it opened. Graduating in 1956, Ralph went on to work as a farm hand on a neighboring farm as well as helping on the family farm. He married his wife of 57 years Shirley in December of 1961. Shortly after, in 1962, Ralph was called to duty by Uncle Sam and drafted into the Army.
He completed his basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. There he was trained as a heavy equipment operator, learning to run bull dozers, and other equipment.
From there Ralph was sent to the 809th Engineering Battalion in Thailand. He and his fellow soldiers worked on road building from Bangkok to the Laotian border. Ralph was deployed to Thailand for 11 months.
Upon returning to the states he was in a company motor pool at Fort Collins, Colorado, for his last six months before being discharged in 1964.
Following his time in service Ralph worked on the family farm as well as at Montfort Equipment. He also worked as a Fennimore Township Patrolman for 24 years and also drove bus for the Fennimore Community Schools.
Ralph, like many veterans who’ve went on the Honor Flight before him, was blown away by the 24 hour whirlwind it entails.
“It was a long, long day,” Ralph shared with a chuckle. “We left Fennimore at 1:45 a.m. and got back the following day at 1:15 a.m.”
Ralph took his nephew Jeff Wienkes along with him as his Guardian for the flight.
“I wanted to take my brother as my Guardian, but he is over 70 and they require you be under 70, so I took his boy!” Ralph shared.
The pair arrived at the airport in Madison bright and early and enjoyed the small ceremony put on for the Veterans and Guardians as they prepared to depart.
“We loaded on the plane and took off around 7 a.m. and arrived around 10 a.m. their time,” Ralph said.
From there, Ralph, Jeff and all of the other Veterans and Guardians loaded onto buses and were able to catch the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
From there they had lunch at the Airforce Memorial and then went on to see the Vietnam Memorial, Lincoln Memorial as well as the Marine Memorial.
However, Ralph commented it was the Korean War Memorial and Pentagon Memorial that had the most impact on him.
“The Korean War Memorial was just amazing,” Ralph said. “They (the statues of soldiers) looked like they could just start talking to you. It was really something.”
The Pentagon Memorial also touched Ralph. A new memorial, which memorializes those killed in the Pentagon as well as those killed in the airplane during 9/11.
“It was really exciting to see the new memorial,” Ralph expressed. “It was very impressive.”
The group was blessed with perfect weather for the trip, noting that the first Saturday in October brought sunny skies and 75 degree weather.
After a long, but rewarding day the Veterans and their Guardians loaded back on the buses and once again on an air plane bound for home.
They arrived back at the Dane County Regional Airport around 9 p.m. and took part in the ever emotional and exciting welcome home ceremony.
“I’m guessing there was around four thousand people there,” Ralph said. “I came off of the plane and I shook a lot of hands, more than I ever have in my whole life.”
For more information or to apply to the Badger Honor Flight, Veterans can contact the organization at 608-616-0243 or via email at email@example.com or on their website at www.badgerhonorflight.org. TLC Veterans who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness and have a life expectancy of less than 12 months from any conflict are encouraged to call the phone number listed above directly to get signed up for the Badger Honor Flight.