A time for honor and healing: Purple Heart veterans, Gold Star family members visit Washington

WASHINGTON — Many of the nation’s fallen heroes from this century have been laid to rest in a special part of Arlington National Cemetery.

It’s known as Section 60, and it’s where Sallie Allen of Bellevue comes to visit her son Lonnie “Calvin” Allen Jr., an army sergeant killed at age 26 by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006.

Over the years, she has seen the rows of gleaming new gravestones in Section 60 stretch ever farther into the distance.

“I just think of all the lives that have been lost. And some of them were so young. This guy’s even younger than Calvin,” she said, gesturing toward a marker for someone killed around the same time, but born in 1985. “I just don’t believe it. The day we buried Calvin, none of this was here.”

Allen had plenty of company on Friday’s visit, which was part of the latest Nebraska honor flight organized by Bill and Evonne Williams — this one for Purple Heart veterans and Gold Star family members.

About 100 veterans and dozens of Gold Star family members participated in Friday’s flight.

“I’m honored to know that they did not forget the ones that gave the ultimate sacrifice,” Allen said.

In addition to Arlington, the group visited the memorial to those killed at the Pentagon on 9/11 and major military memorials around Washington.

Bill Williams said he expects this to be their last honor flight — although that’s been said before.

He ticked through the numbers to date: 13 honor flights over the course of 11 years, bringing 3,500 veterans to Washington to be recognized for their service.

The flights have featured veterans from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the more recent conflicts.

Depending on timing, the weather for the flights has included snow and rain, bitter cold and scorching heat.

Friday was a gorgeous, sunny day, although severe weather the day before caused some problems. Organizers had assembled the Remembering Our Fallen exhibit along the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial. The photographic exhibit honors those killed in the wars following the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Strong winds had knocked the displays into the water, leaving volunteers scrambling Friday to get them back in order just in time.

The trips have always been part sightseeing and part group therapy as the veterans and family members appreciate being able to spend time with others who understand where they’ve been and what they’ve experienced.

Brian Anderson of Norfolk, Nebraska, wanted to go on Friday’s flight in part to connect with fellow veterans. He recalled signing up with the Nebraska Army National Guard in the spring of 2001. At basic training later that year, the drill sergeants stopped everything and ushered the young soldiers into a theater to watch coverage of the 9/11 attacks.

It was a moment that made their service suddenly very real.

“Boy, they called my bluff right off the get-go, didn’t they?” Anderson joked, chuckling at the memory of that day.

Anderson served one deployment in Iraq and then was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011.

That’s where he and other Nebraska soldiers set out on a mission to secure a downed helicopter.

A roadside bomb detonated under their armored vehicle, flipping it over and wounding those inside.

“It literally felt like somebody had hit me in the chest with a sledgehammer,” Anderson said.

As a result of his injuries, Anderson said he walks like an 80-year-old man today.

He medically retired in December, tired of gritting his way through pain just to complete basic exercises.

Also on Friday’s flight were two others who were in the vehicle with him, Travis Kechely of Beatrice, Nebraska, and Matt Crane of Glenwood, Iowa.

Kechely, who now owns a fencing company, was driving the vehicle when the bomb hit. He said Friday’s trip was a good opportunity to be with those he served alongside.

They feel lucky they weren’t injured worse than they were, he said, and were able to make it back altogether.

Those on Friday’s flight share an understanding of war, and of healing, he said.

“Everybody here has a Purple Heart. That’s pretty humbling. We’ve all seen combat. We’ve all been injured,” Kechely said. “There’s just a collective respect for each other.”

Also on Friday’s flight was Justin Anderson, 35, of Bellevue, who served in the infantry during the initial push into Iraq in 2003.

His vehicle was hit by a blast one night that killed his lieutenant, Jeffrey Kaylor, who was next to him in the vehicle.

Just hours later, other members of his unit were attacked and Anderson’s best friend, Jason Meyer, was killed by enemy gunfire.

A couple of months after that, Anderson was wounded in combat himself. He was shot and took shrapnel wounds during an attack but continued to fight back.

As a result of his wounds, part of his leg would have to be amputated years later.

Both Kaylor and Meyer are buried in Section 60. Anderson knelt on his prosthetic leg Friday as he laid roses at their graves.

When Kaylor was killed, a unit insignia had fallen off his helmet. After holding on to it for 16 years, Anderson wanted to return it.

He set it atop Kaylor’s gravestone and talked to his fallen brother.

“I wish I could’ve done more, but I know I did everything I could,” he said softly. “I treasure every moment we had together. I know you’re watching over me. I know we’ll be together again.”

He said the honor flight helped provide him with emotional support, and he expects that it’s the same for others who joined the flight.

“They can relate to exactly what we’re going through and we can be there for each other, to support one another,” Anderson said.

Flight delays in Washington caused the veterans and Gold Star family members to return to Omaha later than planned, but a downtown celebration and parade went on as scheduled.

A few hundred people lined the 10th Street bridge from Jackson Street, where the parade began, south to the Durham Museum, where it ended. Many of the parade-goers were clad in eye-catching American flag-themed outfits and other patriotic gear.

The parade kicked off shortly before 11 p.m. and included appearances by Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and Gov. Pete Ricketts. Then, a handful of trolleys carrying the honor flight attendees drove the route to cheers and applause from the crowd.

One little girl’s sign summed up the sentiment of the crowd: “Thank you for for your service.”​

Staff writer Reece Ristau contributed to this story.