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Honoring sacrifice and the bond of service

Vietnam War veterans Donald Thompson, center left, and Phil Wahlig, center right, share stories while they wait to board the 102nd honor flight from St. Louis Lambert International Airport, June 5, 2023. The Greater St. Louis Honor Flight program flies veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials dedicated to their service. (U.S. Transportation Command photo by Natalie Powell)

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SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. — Before sunrise, a sense of anticipation filled terminal two at St. Louis Lambert International Airport. Sixty-five veterans, along with family members and volunteers, waited to board the 102nd Greater St. Louis Honor Flight — an extraordinary initiative that flies veterans to Washington, to visit the national memorials dedicated to their service.


The atmosphere at the gate brimmed with camaraderie as the volunteers listened and thanked the veterans, who shared tales of valor and sacrifice with their fellow travelers. Air Force Brig. Gen. Michelle Hayworth, Command, Control, Communications, and Cyber Systems director with U.S. Transportation Command, and her husband, Stan Hayworth, joined to show their gratitude and send off our nation’s heroes.



“This journey is a testament to the strong spirit of these courageous men and women,” Hayworth said, “reminding them that their sacrifices have not been forgotten.”


Among those eagerly awaiting to board the flight was a father and Vietnam War veteran Donald Thompson, and beside him, his daughter, Belinda Zimmerer, who works for Hayworth at USTRANSCOM. 


As he sat with his daughter, Thompson’s eyes gleamed with pride and gratitude, grateful for all that she did to coordinate this trip for him, saying, “I am so lucky to have my daughter. She is my star.”


For Zimmerer, this journey had special significance. Working as a civil servant, she recognized the profound impact of her father’s service, saying, “I hope he understands how much our family appreciates him and everything he’s done for our country.


“I am honored to be going on this trip with him,” she continued. “Being here, seeing and feeling everyone’s gratitude for him and all the veterans — [it’s] moving.”


In the weeks leading to the trip, Thompson’s family delved into his service records and cherished photographs. Together, they unraveled the stories of his time in Vietnam and his 24 years in the Air Force. 


“These past few weeks,” Zimmerer said, “myself, his two granddaughters, extended family and friends have had so much fun listening to his stories.”



Before boarding his flight to Washington, Thompson spoke about the unique bond between service members and veterans. 


“It’s easy talking to service members and veterans,” Thompson said, “because we have a shared camaraderie — I miss that the most. There are some great people and stories here, especially from the World War II vets.”


Honor Flight is a testament to the enduring bond that spans generations, woven by stories, experiences and a shared appreciation of American service.


As the gate closed, the veterans settled into their seats and prepared for a journey that will forever serve as a reminder that their commitment and sacrifice will never be forgotten.

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