'More than we expected'

Alex Doty • Apr 27, 2018 at 10:00 AM

It was a whirlwind weekend for Grand Haven’s Bob Wolniakowski, 88, and George “Skip” Schippers, 85, who both participated in the Talons Out Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., this past Saturday.

The two Korean War veterans flew out of Kalamazoo early Saturday morning to our nation’s capital with veterans from the Korean War, World War II and Vietnam War on an all-expenses-paid trip, where they toured monuments built in honor of their service.

“It was super,” said Wolniakowski, a U.S. Army veteran. “It really turned out to be more than we expected.”

“It was the experience of a lifetime,” added Schippers, a veteran of the U.S. Navy. “Anyone that can go, you’ll want to go.”

The two men drove to Kalamazoo Friday night, accompanied by their sons, Bob Wolniakowski and George Schippers III. The group attended a welcome dinner that night and met other veterans participating in the flight.

“I didn’t know a soul except for (Bob),” Schippers said. “They were from everywhere.”

The veterans awoke early the next day and left for their day-long trip.

“We got up at a quarter to five,” Wolniakowski said. “At 5:30, they had breakfast for us, which consisted of two doughnut holes and a cup of coffee.”

He noted that they were given a bigger meal once they got on the plane. And, once in Washington, the red carpet came out to welcome the veterans.

“All along the way, there were people there to shake your hand,” Schippers said.

This welcome included a group of Michigan State University and University of Michigan alumni, as well as other passengers waiting for other flights at the airport, all who cheered them on as they made their way to their buses.

The VIP treatment didn’t stop once the group left the airport. People were even giving their recognition along the sidewalk, and the veterans were treated to a first-class tour around the capital via police escort.

“We didn’t stop for anything,” Schippers said of the bus tour. “They had an escort and just went.”

The tour buses had guides on board to narrate the trip and explain the sights along the way, the two veterans noted. They visited Arlington National Cemetery, the Air Force Memorial, Navy Memorial, World War II Memorial, Korean Memorial and FDR Memorial. The group was also able to see the U.S. Navy’s precision drill team and the Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery.

“I may be biased, but I thought the Korean War monument was top-notch,” said Wolniakowski, adding that the World War II monument was the largest they saw.

Wolniakowski said he was impressed with his first-ever trip to Washington, D.C.

“You were sure you were going to see the monuments,” he said. “But the people and the way they reacted ... it was really special.”

Wolniakowski said he recommends that anyone who gets a chance to make a trip to Washington take the opportunity to do it.

Schippers, who had visited Washington in the past, said he was impressed with the enormity of the city and the monuments. He said he was glad the group was able to experience it, thanks to the Honor Flight program.

“I didn’t expect to do what we did in the amount of time that we did,” Schippers said.

The younger Wolniakowski, who served as his father’s guardian during the trip, noted that he, too, enjoyed the experience.

“The monuments were neat to see, and they certainly fed you well and kept you going,” he said.

The experience didn’t end once the veterans boarded the plane for the trip back to Kalamazoo on Saturday night. During the return flight, the veterans participated in a mail call, where they received and read letters sent by family and friends that thanked them for their service.

Both Schippers and Wolniakowski said they were overjoyed with their letters.

“I had no idea what they were until I got home and started reading them,” Schippers said.

Wolniakowski said, “Our daughter teaches kindergarten in Charlotte, North Carolina, and she had her whole class draw a little picture and put their names on it.”

After landing in Kalamazoo, the veterans were escorted to Wings Stadium for a surprise welcome-home rally with family and friends.

“I thought the whole town was there,” Schippers said. 

More than three dozen family members and friends were at Wings Stadium to welcome the group back home, shaking all of the veterans’ hands as they paraded around the arena.

Jean Wolniakowski, who signed up her father (Schippers) and father-in-law (Wolniakowski) for the experience two years ago, said she was glad the two men enjoyed the trip, and wants more people to know about the opportunity.

“We’re going to get ahold of the American Legion to let more people know about it,” she said, adding that she also intends to see how she can get more involved in the Honor Flight organization.

Want to fly?

Top priority is given to World War II and terminally ill veterans from all wars. In order for Honor Flight to achieve this goal, guardians fly with the veterans on every flight to provide assistance and help veterans have a safe, memorable and rewarding experience.

You can apply for an Honor Flight with Talons Out by filling out an online application, available at http://talonsout.info/?page_id=1345, or print and mail the application to: Talons Out Honor Flight, P.O. Box 280, Portage, MI 49024.

For more information, contact the organization at 269-273-4545 or email [email protected]

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