Flight number 66 will prepare for takeoff Tuesday with 98 U.S. military veterans from Missouri aboard the plane. Central Missouri Honor Flight is taking the war heroes to the nation’s Capitol to visit memorials dedicated to their military service.

For some, they will get the closure they’ve been looking for all these years. President Mary Paulsell said the trips help many veterans to close the chapter on a difficult part of their lives.

“That’s really the blessing of Honor Flight – is what it does for these men and women who have perhaps struggled with memories for so very long. We expect to see a tremendous amount of emotion but also a tremendous amount of relief and pride,” she said.

Paulsell said the “secret sauce” is the support system the veterans provide to one another on the trip.

“To be seated with one another, to be able to talk openly with other veterans who understand their experiences, these trips can be quite emotional for some of these veterans. So after a few flights, we started getting phone calls from veterans who had flown with us and telling us that you know, they’re able to sleep through the night for the first time in decades,” said Paulsell. “The memorials are the reason to go, but what really happens among them and for them in their hearts and minds, I think, is what has been a tremendous blessing. We find after every flight that veterans will approach us and tell us, ‘This was the greatest day of my life.’ We find that hard to believe, but they say it with all sincerity.”

She said the veterans form friendships over the one-day experience.

“And they stay in touch with each other. Several veterans who have flown have formed lunch clubs and they get together once a month just to be together and share a meal. So many things have come out of this that we just never could have anticipated,” said Paulsell.

She recalls two veterans from several flights ago who reunited after serving in the Vietnam War together. They lost a comrade in Vietnam. When they returned to the U.S., the two service members took a $2 bill and tore it in half. They each took a half and vowed to carry it with them in memory of their fallen friend.

“When we got to St. Louis, and we were all standing there waiting to go through TSA, these two men looked at each other. They walked over to each other and looked at each other,” said Paulsell. “And then they reached into their back pocket, pulled out their wallet and pulled out half of a $2 bill. And we had, I mean, we had no way of knowing any of this. But that’s the kind of miracle that we see all the time on these flights, that people who shared experiences are suddenly back in touch and they stay in touch.”

Paulsell said the organization started 14 years ago and has taken more than 5,000 of America’s war heroes on an honor flight – at no cost to the veterans.

“Veterans of World War Two, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War – to be able to sit elbow to elbow with that kind of history and service and commitment and dedication to this nation, I tell you, I can’t think of anything that could ever surpass that,” said Paulsell.

For the homecoming, after the buses the veterans are on leave the St. Louis airport, they will be escorted along I-70 from Kingdom City by hundreds of motorcyclists. The public is invited to welcome them home at the Columbia Courtyard Marriott Tuesday night around 9:45 p.m.

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