John Solheim, 102 year old WWII veteran and long time resident of Redfield, took the trip of a lifetime on Saturday, May 14th, 2022. Solheim was chosen to go on a prestigious Midwest Honor Flight paid for by the Sioux City Musketeers hockey league. The trip, which was the ninth honor flight that has taken place in the midwest, took him to Washington, D.C., the Arlington National Cemetery, to various memorials, and down memory lane. Solheim traveled with his friend and honor flight guardian, Dave Willis.
“Dave created an interest in my motivation and I resisted going for some time, but suddenly said I am going to go with my friend,” said Solheim. “You see, you’ve got to have a friend to help you along or else you aren’t going to make it. It is that simple.”
The two traveled to Sioux Falls for the first part of the trip, and enjoyed an Honor Banquet at the Sioux Falls Convention Center on Friday evening, May 13th. Aaron Van Beek, the 25 year old president and director of Midwest Honor Flight, welcomed the attendees to the banquet. During the banquet, the Missing Comrade Table was set, Sioux Falls Mayor Paul Ten Haken presented a welcome video, and the board and flight crew were introduced. Following the introductions, invocation and meal, a roll call with the armed forces medley was played for the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force. Those who had served were asked to stand when their branch’s song was played.
“It was emotional, you could tell. A few of them were marching in place. The Vietnam vet that was in the Navy was kitty-cornered from us and he was lip-syncing with the words of the Navy song. See, I’m getting goosebumps. It was extremely emotional. A beautiful program,” said Solheim’s daughter, Pam, who was able to attend as a guest.
Solheim said he enjoyed meeting new people at the banquet.
“We sat randomly with different people and we chewed the rag. We had a wonderful conversational time,” said Solheim.
After the banquet, Solheim said they “hit the rooms,” but did not sleep much.
“you haven’t got the time to sleep. You’re busy,” said Solheim.
Willis said he woke Solheim up at 3a.m. on Saturday morning. The Honor Flight veterans and their guardians were ordered to report to the Sioux Falls Sheraton lobby at 3:30a.m. to start the shuttling process to the Sioux Falls Regional Airport.
“In my memory, we used to get in about that time when I was young. There was fun going on, you see. But that’s beside the point,” said Solheim.
Upon their arrival at the airport, the military color guard was standing at attention to honor the veterans. The veterans and guardians then began to board the plane. The oldest veterans were given priority.
“The World War II vets get priority. He is 102, so he even got more priority. So he got the first seat on the first class,” said Willis.
“You see, basically, I got the gizzards off of the chicken plate,” said Solheim.
The plane had 84 veterans, 84 guardians and 22 crew volunteers (including nurses, medics, EMT’s and flight staff). After the WWII vets, the Korean War vets and Vietnam vets boarded the plane.
“The flight was super organized. Two hours and 15 minutes later and we were there,” said Willis. “When we got to Washington D.C., one of the fire trucks sprayed water all over. I am not sure what the actual meaning of that is. Cleansing or something. They had the fire truck doing that, and then they had 10 or 15 EMT’s. It was emergency management week and police week in D.C. So they had like 20 cop cars and 20 ambulances. It was quite a show there.”
“The organization was very impressive. You see, they say a lot of people creates a lot of confusion, and they do, but if it’s organized, it goes well,” said Solheim.
Upon their arrival, the veterans and guardians were met by three large buses that picked them up. They enjoyed breakfast, lunch, and dinner provided by the Honor Flight team.
Their first stop was the Smithsonian. Then the Arlington Cemetery.
“Arlington National Cemetery is the most impressive place I have ever visited. Everybody should visit it. It kind of talks to you. It is sensational. There is more to it than just the headstones,” said Solheim. “This is recognizable as an important visitation for anybody. Whether you are young or old or whatever. Folks take their kids to Disneyland, but you you see, if they took them to Arlington, they would remember better.”
Solheim had a front-row seat to the changing of the guard. He said he was very impressed by it.
“Organization to the seconds. Fantastic. You see, a high school senior should see this because it can organize their thinking in their life. This is highly memorable because the price is high. Terrible high,” said Solheim.
“That was probably my favorite. And I think it was even more than the World War II memorial,” said Willis.
The veterans and their guardians also visited the Washington Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War memorials, and the Vietnam Wall.
“I remember when they built the WWII memorial, which was way overdo. And we donated a few bucks and it meant a lot. So for him to finally see it was long overdue. The fact that he could go and see this at 102,” said Pam.
“When we were at the WWII, It was about three quarters of a mile or a mile. When we got off the bus, they mandated that everybody had an honor chair (wheelchair). Every one of the guardians had one of those for their veteran, because they didn’t want them to walk to the end of the memorial and get tired and not be able to get back, so each one of them had to take one even if they pushed it empty, you know. But we stayed right on track,” said Willis. “You never felt like you were hurried.”
While viewing memorials, many onlookers thanked the large group of veterans for their service.
“The one time that I cried…there was this family and the little girl was kind of bashful, but she came up and said, ‘thank you very much for your service, Mr. Solheim’ and… she went over to her mom and she said ‘Mom, do you think Mr. Solheim would let me take a picture with him?’ That is when I cried,” said Willis. “And John boy said ‘sure!’ So that happened quite a bit. It happened many times.”
When the veterans arrived back in Sioux Falls, they were greeted by a roaring crowd of family and friends in the Sioux Falls Convention Center. Attendees were all given an American flag to wave as they awaited the return of their loved ones.
“People were there with goofy patriotic hats on. Little kids were dressed up to beat the band, you know. So the arrival of the plane was late, of course, because we are talking airlines and airports. These guys did not have to go through TSA or any of that, because it was a private flight. So here comes the first bus. It is a great big school bus. They drove into the center onto the floor. The crowd erupted. Erupted. Flags waving, screaming, clapping,” said Pam. “It was an amazing thing to see these big busses driven through there and then all of our family members were back and safe. First of all, when they left the airport in Sioux Falls they had a motorcycle caravan escort. Then they had police cars with their sirens on. Someone on the first bus was taking a video of this. You could hear everyone in the bus saying, ‘Where are we going?’ ‘How come it is taking so long to get back?’ ‘We should have turned there.’ A lot of them didn’t realize they would be welcomed home like this with the busses driven into the center. They would get off and the first bus, the first person, and the first several people got out and were looking around in awe and everyone was screaming and waving and clapping. It was the same reaction from every bus when they got off. Dave and John were the last two out of all those people to get off of a bus. Everything about it was so patriotic. If you didn’t feel patriotic about it before, you did then. It just touched your soul.”
“We were a bunch of farm kids that went to the service, you see. So you stand around when you went in and it was unbelievable. We all had the same experience of leaving home. A lot of them were in Arlington, you see. They didn’t make it. Imagine being 102 years old and having this experience. That in itself is an amazing kind of behavior,” said Solheim.
“This whole thing was out of his comfort zone. Completely. He hasn’t left Redfield forever,” said Pam. “When he got up that Friday morning he came around the corner and he said, ‘I must be crazy.’ I said, ‘Why is that?’ He said, ‘How many new experiences can a guy of 102 have, and what are you going to do with them?’ And he came back with a totally different feeling. That there are still experiences you can have out there at 102 that are worth having. And I think that is the utmost thing that he got from this.”