D.C. Alumni Chapter Welcomes Wisconsin Honor Flights
For Cat Giljohann ’05, JD’10, assisting the veterans who take part in Honor Flights is a family obligation — even though the veterans themselves aren’t her relations.
“Talking with them is like talking with my grandfather,” she says of the World War II vets whom she assists on their visits to the nation’s capital. “The flights do great things for them — and for me, too. It gives me so much happiness to connect with them.”
The Honor Flights bring older soldiers from around the country to visit Washington, D.C. The program was launched in 2005, a year after the national World War II Memorial opened, to give veterans of that conflict a chance to see the monument while they are still able. Since then, the flights have served hundreds of vets, and Madison is one of three cities in Wisconsin that dispatches Badger Honor Flights on a regular basis.
In 2010, the WAA: Washington, D.C. Chapter sent out a call for volunteers to greet the arrival of a Madison Honor Flight. The goal was to send a group of Badgers to meet honorees at the airport and another group to the memorial, so that the Wisconsin vets would have a Big Red cheer wherever they went.
The chapter’s most recent Honor Flight event was in October, when the chapter helped to welcome a group that arrived in Washington in the immediate aftermath of the federal government’s partial shutdown.
“We had a huge turnout,” says Brian Conlan ’09, the chapter’s co-chair for volunteer activities, noting that more than 200 people requested an access pass to greet the flight at the airport.
Giljohann was part of the 2010 group, and she found the experience deeply moving. “I jumped at the opportunity right away,” she says. “My grandfather was a World War II veteran, a Seabee in the Pacific. He’d seen bad things. For the majority of my life, it was something he didn’t want to talk about. And then he died before having an opportunity to see the memorial.”
Since then, she’s deepened her commitment. While the chapter greets honorees, she has volunteered half a dozen times to be an Honor Flight “guardian” — a veteran’s friend for the day, accompanying him or her throughout the visit. She keeps in contact with each of the vets she’s worked with. The experience, Giljohann says, lets her give other veterans a chance that her grandfather never had.
“Going to the memorial gives veterans a safe zone to talk about their experiences,” she says. “When I’m with them, they have a chance to talk about things they’ve kept hidden all these years. It touches my heart to know that I can help them.”
The D.C. chapter intends to continue welcoming Honor Flights from Madison. “It makes me sad that this generation is passing away before they have the chance to see the beautiful memorial that was built to honor them,” says Giljohann. “They all carry powerful memories, and it brings me joy just to talk to them.”