Ever since a national memorial was built in Washington, D.C., to honor those who served their country during World War II, Frank Leet of Jackson has longed for the day when he would visit the site.
Leet's wish is being granted this weekend as he and 29 other veterans visit the National World War II Memorial. The 30 veterans who are part of the Honor Tour -- an all-expense-paid, three-day trip to see the memorial and other sights in the nation's capital -- were honored during a special send-off Friday morning at Jackson High School.
"This has been a long time coming," Leet said before the ceremony. "We'll have great experiences to share.
"Sometimes there will be laughter," he said. "And sometimes it will be tears."
From the time the bus carrying the veterans exited off Interstate 55 at Center Junction to when it made its way to the high school parking lot, the event was marked with its share of pageantry.
People lined East Jackson Boulevard, some waving American flags, as a motorcade from military organizations and law enforcement agencies escorted the bus that had made stops in Poplar Bluff, Mo., Dexter, Mo., and Sikeston, Mo., earlier in the day. Awaiting those already on board the bus were six veterans from Cape Girardeau and Jackson.
Once inside the event center each veteran was escorted by female students through a flag-lined hallway into the main auditorium, where the ceremony was held.
A crowd of nearly 2,000 that gathered inside greeted each veteran who entered the floor with a nearly five-minute standing ovation and thunderous applause. The veterans returned their gratitude with a thumbs-up sign or waving of their caps to the students, family members, other veterans and members of the community present.
The 45-minute program included bagpipes, recognition of the veterans, World War II music by the group Replica, remarks by community leaders and presentation of the Honor Tour caps.
In his remarks, Honor Tour founder Rob Callahan of Poplar Bluff thanked family members, veterans and those in the community who donated to the Honor Tour.
"We gather here today in freedom because of the brave," Callahan said. "When you're out and about and you see a member in uniform or you see somebody wearing a military shirt or hat, take the time to stop and thank them.
"We have a gentleman in our group here today with us that's waited over 60 years to hear the words that he first heard today and that was 'thank you,'" he said. "And that's two things most that our veterans would like to hear from people is 'thank you' and that 'I'm praying for you.'"
Jackson Mayor Barbara Lohr later extended the veterans a welcome to Jackson.
"There is no way that we could ever repay the debt we owe you for the sacrifices you made for us and to this whole nation during World War II," Lohr said. "And so for everybody in this room, let me very humbly and sincerely say, 'Thank you, World War II vets. We are free because you were brave.'"
After the program, the veterans posed for a group photo and made their way onto the bus, destined for Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. The veterans are scheduled to return today to Southeast Missouri.
"You can't put words to what this means to our veterans," said Tonya Landewee, who helped coordinate the Honor Tour. "It's makes you feel proud to stand here and give our support to them."
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