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Iron River WW II vet takes Honor Flight

World War II veteran Ken Rhines of Iron River visited the Lincoln Memorial with his daughter Kathy Spreiser as part of the ninth Upper Peninsula Honor Flight on Sept. 16. (submitted photo)

By Jerry DeRoche
IRON RIVER—Understandably, Honor Flights can be an overwhelming experience for the veterans who are able to participate. The flights to Washington, D.C., to honor America’s veterans for their sacrifices and afford them the opportunity to visit and reflect at the memorials in their honor often spark deep emotions.
    As the ninth Upper Peninsula Honor Flight did for Ken Rhines of Iron River, who took the trip on Sept. 16.
    “It was just unreal,” the 91-year-old Rhines said of what was labeled “Mission IX.” “It was awesome.”
    Rhines went on the flight with his daughter, Kathy Spreiser, who was her father’s “guardian” on the trip. All told, 73 veterans and 150 people took the chartered Sun Country Airlines flight directly from Delta County Airport in Escanaba to Reagan National Airport.
    The day began early for Rhines, who left Iron River at about 5 a.m. to catch the 5:45 (CDT) flight. After arriving in Washington, D.C., the veterans began their schedule. The itinerary included visits to the National World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Iwo Jima Memorial along with the chance to observe the Changing of the Guard Ritual at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
    The emotions provoked by such a day and the reflections of the lives lost are profound.
    “It tears at your heart,” Rhines told WLUC-TV in Marquette. “It’s too much to grasp.”
    Spreiser said her father, who was stationed both at Camp McCoy (now Fort McCoy) in Wisconsin and in Belgium, France and Germany with an Army Service Unit, felt that those who came under combat fire were more deserving of the Honor Flight than he was. But she said they both reflected on the role he and his fellow veterans played.
    “Sometimes, they just shake their heads and say they don’t want to think about it,” Spreiser said.
    Not so the monuments, however. Rhine said he was repeatedly touched by what he took in.
    “Just about every monument, the Korean, the Iwo Jima …. It was awesome,” he said.
    After their time in the nation’s capital, the group made its way back to the airport for the flight home. Upon arrival in Escanaba, the veterans were met by a crowd and a band that had gathered to welcome them back to the U.P. at about 8:30 (EST).
    Included in that group were Ken’s wife Irene and sons Les and Jim, with their wives.
    The festivities back home just added to the already emotional day for Rhines and his daughter.
    “I cried as we disembarked the 737 charter and watched as my dad, in utter disbelief, shook so many people’s hands as they welcomed him back,” Spreiser said.
    Still, the day didn’t end there. Spresier said the veterans were still reminiscing at 10:30, long past her father’s normal turn-in time.
    “Usually he goes to bed at 9, like clockwork,” Spreiser said. “But he was still enthusiastic. I was so impressed with that these guys, in their 80s and 90s, just pulled up the strength.”
    The next day, Ken shared a scrapbook of World War II memories, something Ken hadn’t shared previously with his family, except with his wife.
    All told, it was quite a day for Ken. And Kathy wished to pass along her appreciation for the efforts of Upper Peninsula Honor Flight organizers Barb Van Rooy and Paula Waeghe.
    “We witnessed their commitment to our veterans and Honor Flight Network’s dedication …” Spreiser said. “I understand the difficulty in making dreams come true, but these ladies have touched hundreds of people, over and over again.”
    Upper Peninsula Honor Flight is the local hub of the National Honor Flight Network. Its mission is to fly Upper Peninsula World War II and Korean veterans to see the memories that stand in their honor. This “Tour of Honor” is free to the veteran. Airfare, meals, deluxe tour bus, T-shirt and other items are provided at no cost to the veteran.
    More than 700 veterans from the U.P. have participated in the flights, the first of which took place in September 2011.