‘Really honored’: Eight veterans participate in recent trip to capital

Submitted Photos Pictured is the group of 38 veterans who traveled to Washington DC as a part of the most recent Buffalo Niagara Honor Flight.

Bill Larson had been to Washington, D.C. before.

But, on the advice of his preacher, the World War II veteran decided to take part in a recent Honor Flight. Larson doesn’t regret his choice.

At the end of April, Larson and seven more veterans from the Jamestown and Dunkirk area traveled to Washington, D.C., as a part of the most recent Buffalo Niagara Honor Flight. Local veterans on the trip included Larson and Vietnam veterans Robert Williams, Carl Steenburn, Keith Swanson, Harry Uhl, Joe Andrasik, Joel Polito, and one other veteran, Adrian Cooper, who was on the flight as a guardian for Robert Williams.

Larson was the only World War II veteran on the flight, which totaled 38 veterans, and was honored by being involved in the laying of the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and also given a Quilt of Valor during the Meet and Greet Dinner part of the flight.

“I’d seen Washington before but my preacher had a son and he said I should go on the flight,” Larson said. “I really enjoyed the World War II Memorial because I am a World War II veteran. I was honored to lay the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and to be given a Quilt of Valor. It was beautiful and I was really honored.”

The eight local veterans who went on the trip. The group is made up of Bill Larson, Robert Williams, Carl Steenburn, Keith Swanson, Harry Uhl, Joe Andrasik, Joel Polito, and Adrian Cooper.

Robert Williams served in Hamburg, N.Y., saying that as a soldier in Vietnam he was in charge of protecting the financial district, Niagara Park Project and Manorock Bearing Corporation, which is now part of SKF. He said the trip was very enjoyable.

“A lot of other veterans that have gone advised me that I would enjoy it,” Williams said. “I enjoyed seeing all of the monuments.”

Adrian Cooper, who came as a guardian to Williams, said his favorite part about the trip was hearing the other veterans tell their stories. It was also educational for him.

“I enjoyed when the veterans got together and talked about where they had been and what they’d done,” Cooper said. “The person I went as a guardian for worked with missiles when he served. I liked hearing the war stories and I had not been to some of the museums, so it was also educational for me. It makes you stop and wonder about what these people went through.”

Cooper added that he liked visiting the memorials with Williams, saying that it reminded Williams of his uncle and the time he spent with him as a kid.

Carl Steenburn went on the flight with his friend, Keith Swanson. Steenburn was a combat engineer in Vietnam, serving from 1968 to 1971.

“The flight gave a lot of closure for us to our time in Vietnam,” Steenburn said. “It was a rough time when we came home back then. We did not get the welcome home, but we got one this time with the Honor Flight.”

Harry Uhl, another Vietnam veteran, felt the same way as Steenburn, saying that part of the reason he went on the flight was because of the lack of a welcome home after Vietnam.

“We never got the welcome home when we came back from Vietnam,” Uhl said. “We did this time. Everything was excellent, but if I had to name one thing I enjoyed the most it would be going to the wall.”

Uhl said he was able to pick out a few names at the Vietnam Wall memorial of people he had served with and been close to that had passed. He added that his son, who went with him on the trip as a guardian, mentioned to him that it helped get him some closure to that time.

“I didn’t think about that until after he said it, but I think it did give me closure,” Uhl said. “It was a wonderful trip. The entire organization is fantastic and I praise God I had the opportunity to go.”

Along similar lines, Joe Andrasik said he wanted to go because of the lack of a welcome home after Vietnam. He served in the Army for four years as a telephone repairman, spending time in Okinawa, Japan, South Korea and the United States. Following an honorable discharge he served three years in the National Guard.

“A lot of people misunderstood the war so we never got a welcome home,” Andrasik said. “So when the opportunity came up to go on the Honor Flight I wanted to go, but I had no idea what to expect. It was a wonderful experience. It was organized and the people were great.”

Andrasik said he enjoyed getting to bond with the other veterans and visit the Vietnam Wall, which he said was an emotional experience for him, because having lived in Chautauqua County his whole life, he added many local people went to the Vietnam War and never came home.

“That was a big highlight for me,” Andrasik said. “I enjoyed the memorials and it was a nice experience. Everything was arranged and I’m very happy I went. It expanded my life to know that people care about Vietnam veterans and see the respect given to all of the veterans at Arlington Cemetery.”

For Joel Polito, the flight was a once in a lifetime experience.

“I didn’t know how it would affect me 50 years after I served,” Polito said. “It was very emotional and I felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. It was so well planned and I enjoyed what I saw. A lot of things were very impressive but I really enjoyed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”

Keith Swanson referred to the experience as being “absolutely tremendous” and added that all of the veterans on the flight were “treated like kings.” Swanson found out about the Honor Flight program from a friend in Ohio, and it took two years after that for him to be able to go on one.

“Going to Washington and touring the Vietnam Wall was a humbling experience,” Swanson said. “I had been before but it always brings tears to my eyes. We saw the Korean Memorial, Washington Memorial, the Navy and Air Force Memorials and a special event with the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”

Swanson said they also saw the 9/11 memorial of the plane that hit the Pentagon, adding that there were 158 memorial designs next to the Pentagon. Swanson was impressed with the care they received, especially because 12 to 15 of the men on the trip were in wheelchairs. But, similar to the others, the welcome home was one of the best parts for him.

“We came back to Buffalo on Sunday and the welcome home was so humbling,” Swanson said. “Thousands of people were waiting to greet us, including my wife who I was not with when I came back from the war. She said she has waited 53 years to welcome me back. It was the welcome home we never got and an experience I will never forget.”

Swanson said he loved every minute and advised any interested veteran to reach out to the Fenton History Center to go on one of the next flights.


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