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Making the Honor Flight happenSubmitted: 09/13/2013
Story By Lyndsey Stemm


WASHINGTON, D.C. - How do you get 91 aging veterans -- 61 of them in wheelchairs -- to Washington D.C. and back in one day? That's what the Honor Flight did Monday.

Newswatch 12's Lyndsey Stemm went along. Today, she takes a look at how this massive project got started, and the people who make it happen.

"They went back to work on their tractors, and in the factories, and the post office and made this country what it is today. So the "greatest generation" is not overrated by any stretch of the imagination. They've earned my undying gratitude," says Mike Thompson, Co-Founder of the Never Forgotten Honor Flight.

The "greatest generation"... many of us know them as our fathers; our grandfathers. The Honor Flight began because Washington D.C. finally had a WWII memorial. But many veterans from that war are getting too old to travel easily.

Mike Thompson and Jim Campbell started the Northern Wisconsin chapter. But they knew they were fighting time, so they started big.

"We knew the youngest WWII veteran was 82 years old. So without a nickel to our name we decided we needed $80,000 to fly. And at a sprinters pace we started the marathon to fly in five months," says Mike.

Thirteen trips later nearly 1,200 local veterans have gotten to see the memorials built in their honor. Many of those veterans have substantial health needs. But medical volunteers make it possible for them to go too.

"I've got to watch over these guys. Somehow they got old on us and so some of them aren't doing so well. So I spend a lot of time trying to make sure they're having an OK day. Managing oxygen, managing diabetes, you know, whatever we need to do," says Dr. Ryan Gossett, a volunteer medic who's been on every flight since it began.

It's a long day. It wouldn't happen without the scores of volunteers that help see the group off and welcome them home.

"It's really kind of thrilling to see these vets and the volunteers. I think giving back is very important. So that's why I volunteer, because I didn't go to war. But I'm here because they did," says Ann Lucas, a Volunteer from Wausau.

Many veterans resist going on the trip at first. Some don't feel like they played a big enough role in the war they were in.

"Whether it's the guys that were driving up on the beaches, or the guys delivering mail, they all served a role. And we try to help them appreciate that it's an entire system that needed to exist for the war effort," says Ryan.

Honoring that effort, however big or small, is the point of the honor flight. Anyone who didn't get the "thank you" and the "welcome home" they deserved will finally get one-- even if it is more than 60 years later.

Ryan remembers one vet who didn't even want to go home, "...he finally said, 'You know as soon as I go on that bus, I go back home and I'm the old guy that lives down the street. Today I'm a hero'. So that's what this is all about."

Mike remembers a vet from one of the first flights, "This veteran said, 'You know I got of that air plane and if I live to be 100 years old I'll never forget the sights and the sounds of that night'. He said, 'I feel like I won the war all by myself'."



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 IN OTHER NEWS

ANTIGO - You can spot plenty of wildlife in orthern Wisconsin. However, you don't typically see a black belly barbado sheep or a royal palm turkey.

You can go check them out at the new It's All Good Farmstand and Petting Zoo right off Highway 45 in Antigo.

The It's All Good Farmstand and Petting Zoo has a simple goal. It wants people to see interesting animals.
"We decided, what the heck, we should open something to the public to so that everybody that does not have farm critters and enjoy them like we do, can come in and pet the critters and learn a lot of stuff," said owner Cheryl Wirz.

Wirz decided to have her family be part of her staff. It's something she really enjoys.

"I love the fact that my kids are here and they're getting a hands on experience," said Wirz.

"I mostly help load and unload the animals from home to here. Also, I fill up all the water when we get here, and I run the food booth," said staff member and son Aiden Wirz.

That all adds up to work for their kids and there are some perks to working for your parents.

"Mostly, they can't fire me," said Aiden, laughing.

Most animals look familiar to the guests when they come right up to them, but what about the specific breeds?

"We try to promote rare and critically endangered breeds of farm animals. Most people don't even know what they are," said Cheryl Wirz.

The Wirz family is also passionate about the quality of food for their animals.

"We do all organic produce and all of our critters eat all organic. In fact, we grow most of their food," said Cheryl Wirz.

Some young kids might be a litte nervous of the animals at first, but the friendly staff is there to help.

"Little ones will be really nervous and scared, but after awhile they're calmed down and they really love it," said staff member Natasha Lewer.

Even with all the hard work that goes into owning a farm, the happy visitors make it all worth it.

"They light up when they're in there. We had a gentleman that was in a wheelchair and all the animals surrounded him and he was just smiling from ear to ear," said Cheryl Wirz.

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BOULDER JUNCTION - Six months ago, Roger Zerbe had never tried beard balm. But when he went to go buy some, he ran into some difficulties.

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Instead of just ordering some off the internet, Zerbe and his girlfriend, Dana Buehler, decided to make their own.

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EAGLE RIVER - A woman will need to recover after colliding with a car on her bicycle Thursday night near Eagle River, according to the Vilas County Sheriff's Office.

The woman was riding south on Highway 45 when she tried to turn onto Evergreen Road. That's when a southbound car collided with the bicyclist.

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RHINELANDER - If you shopped at Walmart in Rhinelander this summer, you probably noticed things weren't where they usually belong.

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MERRILL - Bryson Cruise hopes the watermelon he blew up Friday morning is the closest anyone gets to an injury this weekend.

But the Merrill firefighter and paramedic knows chances are he'll likely respond to humans instead of fruit the next three days.

"It becomes a pretty busy weekend pretty quick," Cruise said.

Friday, Cruise and members of the Merrill Fire Department set off mortar shells and firecrackers demonstrating how quickly a fun holiday activity can turn into a trip to the ER.

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ONEIDA COUNTY - Back in November, a 20-year-old Rhinelander man drove and crashed his car after a night of drinking, killing his best friend in the passenger seat.

That driver will now spend nine months in jail.

Randall J. Lego was sentenced in Oneida County Court on Friday. 

He faced two charges of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle.

According to court documents, Lego's car hit a power pole on River Road just outside Rhinelander.

The passenger, 23-year-old Jacob Juedes, was dead at the scene. Juedes was a husband and father of a young daughter.

Oneida County Circuit Court Judge Patrick O'Melia said it was a tragic set of circumstances.

"The only aggravating factor here, and when I say that I don't mean to diminish the loss here, but is the result of this accident," O'Melia said. "That is the only thing that is not in your favor, which is the result of the action and the permanency of it."

Some witnesses testified to Lego's character and pleaded with the judge to not give jail time.

But, Judge O'Melia sentenced Lego to nine months in jail and seven years probation.

"There's a lot of people in the community who have strong feelings about what should happen," O'Melia said. "But the court can't sentence on community anger or community empathy."

Lego must also complete 200 hours of community service, for which Judge O'Melia wants Lego to speak to kids and teens about his experience. 




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