WASHINGTON - Young people look forward to their 18th birthdays for a variety of reasons.
Bark River resident Dominick Larson was thrilled to reach that age for a rather unusual, but very patriotic, motivation involving Upper Peninsula Honor Flight, which brings World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorial in their honor along with other American landmarks.
"I volunteered in some ways at the first three (U.P.) Honor Flights, but for this one, I am finally 18 and am old enough to be a guardian," said Larson, a senior at Bark River-Harris High School. "I wanted to be able to go on the flight and give something back to our vets who have given so much to us. Both of my great-grandpas were veterans so I wanted to be a guardian in honor of them."
Dominick Larson of Bark River served as a guardian on Upper Peninsula Honor Flight Wednesday, escorting Ontonagon World War II veteran John Szaroletta throughout the day’s activities. Larson had volunteered in various capacities for Honor Flight in the past, but is thrilled to have turned 18, meaning he could be a guardian on the trip. (Marquette Mining Journal photo by Renee Prusi)
The fourth Upper Peninsula Honor Flight returned to the Delta County Airport in Escanaba Wednesday evening, marking another successful trip. Above, Joseph Strozeski of Gladstone gives the crowd a thumbs up as he and his guardian, Mark Coyne, of Gladstone, make their way to the airport hangar. (Daily Press photo by Holly Richer)
On Wednesday, Larson indeed was a guardian - each veteran is assigned one, be it a family member, a friend or even someone they had never met before who helps make sure every need is taken care of during the trip to the nation's capital. Guardians receive special training to be prepared to help the elderly veterans throughout the trip.
Larson served as guardian to 88-year-old John Szaroletta of Ontonagon, helping him on and off the buses that brought the 76 veterans along with their guardians and others making the trip to the many stops throughout the day. Larson also pushed Szaroletta in a wheelchair to some of the more distant landmarks during the one-day whirlwind trip.
"I never met John until today, but we're having a good time," Larson said.
Szaroletta was effusive in his praise of his new young friend.
"Dominick is the absolute best," Szaroletta said. "He has been wonderful to me."
Larson said, "John has told me some things about his life. He's an interesting man."
Many other young people were learning about veterans through Wednesday's Honor Flight trip.
U.P. Honor Flight Mission IV's veterans were greeted when they arrived at the World War II Memorial by more than 100 school children from Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly, Va., students who had just studied the Second World War and wanted to meet these American heroes.
The students held up thank-you signs and other greetings, reaching out to shake hands with many veterans as they arrived for their tour of the memorial.
Also on hand to salute the veterans were U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, and U.S. Rep. Dan Beneshik, R-Crystal Falls, as well as a number of high-ranking officers from the Pentagon.
Everywhere the Honor Flight went, the veterans were greeted with applause, including at Reagan National Airport upon arrival.
"This is unbelievable," said veteran Bob Engdahl of Wells Township as he was met with a wave of applause and cheers as he walked into the terminal. "Thank you all so very much."
Wednesday marked the fourth trip for U.P. Honor Flight to the nation's capital. So far, some 313 World War II veterans have made the one-day trip on the four flights - all at no cost to them. Those who organize the flights raise all the funds from the various communities around the Upper Peninsula.
The goal is to bring all World War II veterans from the U.P. to see the memorial built in their honor, which was dedicated in 2004.
While in the nation's capital, the group visits the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Memorial and Arlington Cemetery, among other stops.
Members of U.P. Honor Flight IV were sent off early Wednesday morning from the Delta County Airport with music by the Escanaba High School Band and greeted by several hundred community members upon their return at about 8:40 p.m. Wednesday.