'True celebrities': Program takes vets to WWII memorial in DC

LAWRENCEVILLE - Leo Wilde said he felt like a celebrity.

The 85-year-old World War II veteran visited the national memorial erected in his, and other veterans', honor in Washington, D.C., for the first time recently with the Honor Flight Network.

Wilde, who served as a Marine for three years and 19 days during World War II, traveled with about 70 other veterans who were flown to D.C. on an all-expenses-paid day trip with Honor Flight guardians who were assigned two veterans each. The guardians were responsible for ensuring the veterans' safety and comfort throughout the trip.

Wilde said the streets outside the church in Fayetteville where the veterans met were lined with locals seeing them off to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. A police escort traveled with the buses taking veterans to their gate at the airport, where pilots, flight attendants, passengers and visitors were lined up to show their appreciation for their service.

"I've never had so many pictures taken in my life," Wilde said. "No matter where we went, there were people lining up taking our pictures. They made us feel like true celebrities."

Wilde even received kisses from strangers thanking him for his service and was surprised when he arrived at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., to be greeted by even more supporters.

"That impressed me, and all of us, very much," he said. "I thought the honoring was pretty much done when we got through Hartsfield."

A police escort traveled with the veterans to the memorials, where the veterans were given the chance to see

"I'm not a great memorial guy, but it's impressive," Wilde said. "You've got to be amazed at what they've done."

Before he left the National WWII Memorial, Wilde was interviewed by a reporter from CNN.

"I don't know how they picked me, but I was late for our lunch because of it," he laughed.

The Honor Flight Network program was founded by Earl Morse, a physician assistant and retired Air Force captain to honor the veterans he cared for in the past 27 years. Working for the Department of Veterans Affairs in a small clinic in Springfield, Ohio, in 2004, the completed National World War II Memorial became the topic of discussion among his World War II veteran patients. Morse repeatedly asked the veterans if they would ever travel out to visit their memorial and most thought that, eventually, somehow, they would make it to D.C.

In May 2005, six small planes flew out of Springfield, Ohio, transporting 12 veterans of World War II to visit their memorial in Washington, D.C. In August of that same year, an ever-expanding waiting list of veterans led the transition to commercial airline carriers with the goal of accommodating as many veterans as possible. Partnering with HonorAir in Hendersonville, N.C., the Honor Flight Network was formed to offer war veterans the opportunity - free of charge - to see the national memorials that honor their military service.

"It was just great," Wilde said of his trip. "We all like to be honored, especially in our old age, but I think we appreciate it any time in life."