Fort McCoy Garrison’s senior enlisted leader, Command Sgt. Maj. Raquel DiDomenico, served as one of 50 guardian escorts Sept. 10 for nearly 100 veterans who were part of the most recent Freedom Honor Flight from La Crosse to Washington, D.C.
Freedom Honor Flight is a La Crosse-based organization founded in April 2008, said Patti Lokken, a founding board member. Its goal is to fly veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials that stand in their honor.
“When we started out in 2008, we were flying mainly World War II veterans,” Lokken said. “Now we are still flying World War II veterans first, and then Korean War veterans, and Vietnam War veterans after that. The flight we held on Sept. 10 was our 27th flight, so we’ve flown thousands of veterans so far.”
DiDomenico said she was proud to be a part of the latest flight. With her group of six Korean War veterans and 93 Vietnam War veterans, they visited all of the special memorials in Washington and Arlington, Va., areas, including the Air Force Memorial, Marine Corps Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington Monument, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Women in Military Service to America Memorial, World War II Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for the Changing of the Guard ceremony.
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“I was the guardian for Mr. John ‘First Class Jack’ Westgard from Rochester, Minn.,” said DiDomenico. “It is a humbling experience, hanging out with these veterans. They get up incredibly early for the 6 a.m. chartered flight out of La Crosse. They see the whirlwind of sites throughout the day.
“Then, they return late at night, and you can see their faces light up when they see the Welcome Home party in their honor,” DiDomenico said. “The entire day is completely free for the veteran, including meals. There are plenty of donations from extremely generous supporters and an awesome display of selfless service from a huge team of coordinators.”
Lokken said she got behind starting the Freedom Honor Flight partly because her father was a World War II veteran who never got to see the World War II monument but donated to it.
“He was a staff sergeant with who had served with the 3rd Infantry Division and in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II,” Lokken said. “He died before he could see any of this, and I know he wanted to see it happen.”
Lokken’s father, former Army Staff Sgt. Denzle Robison also has Fort McCoy ties.
“Toward the end of the war, he was at (Camp) McCoy helping with the outprocessing of Soldiers,” Lokken said. “He didn’t talk a lot about his service but he did tell us that he worked at McCoy during the end of the war.”
DiDomenico and Lokken said those who serve as a guardian escort have to pay a $500 fee to participate. “That fee includes the flight, meals, and everything for the day,” Lokken said.
People who want to consider being a guardian escort, or who might know a veteran to go on the Freedom Honor Flight should visit their website at https://www.freedomhonorflight.org.
“On the website, people can submit applications for a veteran or to be a guardian,” Lokken said. “It’s a pretty easy process and easy to understand.”
DiDomenico said the experience is worth it.
“There are some very cool things that they do, such as escorting a flag onto the plane for a veteran who was scheduled for the flight but passed away before they were able to attend,” DiDomenico said. “And Soldiers or others who want to support but can’t be guardians can show up for the morning send-off or the evening welcome home ceremony. They stand on the flight line and wave to the veterans. It’s a huge morale booster.”
Because they are an all-volunteer organization, Freedom Honor Flight states on their website, that they are not available to answer questions at all business hours.
People can email the organization at email@example.com.