ROCHELLE — On Sept. 6, Rochelle resident and Vietnam-era Navy veteran Steve Strang went on an honor flight trip to Washington DC.
The trip was organized out of Peoria and the organization sends veterans to Washington DC on a one-day trip to see monuments and sights free of charge. 75 veterans were on Strang’s trip.
Strang mostly served in Guantanamo, Cuba during his service, along with stints in Chicago and California. He was part of the United States Naval Construction Battalions, better known as the Navy Seabees, that form the U.S. Naval Construction Force.
Strang took his daughter, Wendy, to accompany him on the trip and to help him along. Strang suffers from ALS that inhibits the use of his arms and gives him trouble getting up and down. The honor flight experience started with dinner in Peoria the night before for all of the participating veterans before departing early the next morning.
Strang’s experience included seeing Arlington National Cemetery and the changing of the guard ceremony, the Vietnam monument, the World War II monument, the Abraham Lincoln monument, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt and more.
“I think the trip was wonderful,” Strang said. “I'd been to DC before a few times. To go with that group and how they treated you was amazing. Our plane was late and they held off the changing of the guard ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery until we got there. I didn't think they changed the time for anybody. But they did for us. It was a wonderful thing to do.”
On the way back home during honor flights, veterans are given letters written by family, friends, members of their local community and more thanking them for their service. And then after the plane landed, the veterans were met with hundreds of people including friends and family welcoming them home.
“It was unbelievable how many people showed up in Peoria when we got back to say thank you and honor the veterans,” Strang said. “It was interesting to read the letters and see what different people wrote. It was very moving to read what some people said. For people who didn't personally know me to do that, it was really touching. It took us an hour and a half to read them. And when we got off the plane it took an hour to walk through the line with all the people there waiting for us. I would say that was the best part.”
When Strang came back from his service during the Vietnam era, service members weren’t allowed to wear their uniforms at airports due to negative feelings towards the war. He never saw any issues with that, but does recall being in Long Beach, California after returning and being taken by boat back to base because the streets weren’t safe to walk.
The response upon returning from the honor flight was a far cry from that.
“It was very moving, especially when you returned,” Strang said. “You weren't expecting to have a couple thousand people there. It was just unbelievable. The whole thing was wonderful to see and do.”
Wendy remarked at the 21-hour trip that honor flights consist of. She believes every veteran should take the trip if given the chance. She enjoyed being able to share the experience with her father.
“The biggest thing to me was what happened when they came home,” Wendy said. “It was very overwhelming for all of them I think. There's all these people there to welcome them and thank them and they bring signs. It was a couple thousand people. The veterans were crying and they were emotional. It was just a big thing in general for me, being able to go with my dad.”
Strang was greeted by his wife, Sally Sawicki, and sister, Christine Hawkins, upon his return to Peoria. They made a sign commemorating Strang’s service, along with his father’s and son’s, to welcome him with. The next day, the family sat down and read the letters Strang received.
“They have people write cards and letters to the veterans and give them to them,” Sawicki said. “Family and friends write them and so do people from around town and people that they don't even know. School kids wrote letters. It was tremendously moving.”