By Anne Teigen
Since 2010, I have volunteered with the Rocky Mountain Honor Flight, an organization in Denver whose mission statement is to give "WWII, Korean War, and Vietnam War veterans in the Rocky Mountain Region the opportunity to visit the National WWII Memorial and other monuments and memorials dedicated to their service, located in Washington, D.C."
At least once a year, I take two days vacation from NCSL and put on my Honor Flight guardian hat. As a guardian, I travel with the veterans and physically assist them at the airport, during the flight, at the hotel and at the memorials.
I push wheelchairs, take pictures, pass out water, hold umbrellas and do anything and everything else needed to make their three-day experience wonderful. In that time, I make meaningful and lasting friendships with many of the veterans.
When I began volunteering with the organization eight years ago, there were many more World War II vets on the trips, but on my last trip, two weeks ago, there were only four WWII veterans on the flight and 23 Korean War veterans. (The World War II Museum in New Orleans cited Department of Veterans Affairs statistics that just 496,777 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are alive in 2018.)
Speaking with these Korean War veterans was very interesting. Many of them had older siblings who served in World War II but they were a bit too young, coming of age a few years later, and serving in the very first hot battles of the Cold War that would last another 40-some years.
It was gray and misty when the Honor Flight group arrived at the Korean War Memorial. The 23 veterans and I walked between the 19 stainless steel soldier statues and a granite wall with sandblasted images from actual photographs of the war. As soon as we walked up, nearly a dozen people of Korean heritage approached us.
Although we did not share a common language, I could clearly see they wanted to take pictures of the gentleman I was with. The veterans (and myself) were gripped with emotion as these Korean visitors squeezed their hands, gave them hugs, posed for pictures and repeated the words “Thank you” over and over again.
I heard a woman say, “Thank you for saving our country.” One of the gentlemen had to step away from the group and the pictures because he was overwhelmed. He looked at the statues and said, “That’s just what they looked like coming back from patrol.”
I gave him a quick pat on his back and it hit me like a ton of bricks that this “forgotten war” had not been forgotten at all by the South Korean people who survived and American troops who lived through it.
Every single day, I am thankful to the men and women who have served or continue to serve our country.
And this Veteran’s Day, I am thankful I was fortunate enough to witness the powerful interactions between the veterans of the “forgotten war” and people from Korea who were so thankful and never forgot.
Anne Teigen is a program principal in NCSL's Criminal Justice Program.