On Sept. 21, Dean Kalash boarded a plane in La Crosse, bound for the nation's capital.

The Wilmington Township resident joined a group of World War II and Korean War-era veterans from Southeastern Minnesota and Southwestern Wisconsin who comprised a Freedom Honor Flight. Escorted by guardians, they visited memorials and other points of interest during a long, eventful day.

"I joined the Navy in 1953," Dean said. "The war was still going on in Korea at that time. I was discharged in 1957."

"After my initial training at Great Lakes Naval Station, I was sent to New Orleans to help commission a new minesweeper."

The USS Exploit (MSO-440), was an "Aggressive Class" minesweeper, one of a group of 56 wooden-hulled ocean-going vessels. Sixty-five enlisted men and five officers sailed her into the Gulf of Mexico in 1953. The reason for going back to a wooden hull was to avoid unpleasant surprises from magnetic mines.

"Our motto was, 'Iron men in wooden ships,'" Kalash smiled.

Those memories flooded back as Dean and daughter Ann Sanness arrived at the La Crosse Airport at 5:30 a.m. Ann served as guardian for her father and another veteran. "Every veteran is assigned a guardian," she noted. "Most of the time, it's two vets to one guardian.

"We landed at Dulles Airport," Kalash said, "and the reception was just mindboggling. There were people lined up on both sides of us, waving American flags, walking with us, saying, 'Thank you for your service.'

"These were families, ordinary people who got up early on a Saturday morning to greet us," Ann said. "They were not related to anybody who came. Young families, Cub Scout troops, Girl Scout troops, ROTC groups in full uniform saluting our veterans. It gave me real hope for our country when I walked through there and saw all of these strangers thanking these veterans for their service."

"It just brought tears to your eyes," Dean said.

According to Honor Flight volunteers, this was one of the first tours where Korean War-era vets outnumbered WW II service members. A substantial number of vets were in wheelchairs, and the flight included a full medical staff, including doctors, emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

Stops included the World War II Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, United States Air Force Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, Marine Corps Memorial (Iwo Jima Memorial), Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, and more. A rolling tour also took in the U.S. Capitol, White House, and other sights.

"We had four coach buses," Ann said, "and we had a police escort through the entire city. We never stopped at a red light.

"You were treated like royalty the whole day.

"It was just the best bunch of people you could ever imagine going with," Dean said.

"They all seemed willing to share their stories," Ann added.

When a young quartermaster signalman from Minnesota sailed into the Atlantic back in 1953, he discovered some shipmates who were pushing nearly 20 years of naval service.

"I remember a signalman who was at the Normandy landings," Kalash said. "He told me he was signaling a nearby ship when the bridge just disappeared. Hit by a shell. There were guys that I met in the service who were in Korea. I asked one of them, 'How did you stay warm?' He said, 'We didn't.'

"I never got over to the Pacific Ocean, but believe it or not, we went all the way across the Atlantic at 10 miles per hour. That was the speed of our ship. Refueling at sea was an interesting task.

A little slow?

"A little... We used to fish off the back of the boat. The quartermaster would steer the ship. As a signalman, your job was also to communicate using lights, flags.

"They also called me a skivvy-waver.

It was 11 p.m. when the plane landed back in La Crosse, but out on the tarmac, the Onalaska High School Marching Band awaited the vets. There were plenty of others on hand to greet the returning warriors, including American Legion and VFW members.

Each veteran was immediately presented with a framed photograph taken as they had departed for their tour. Later, they were given other mementos, including DVD recordings and a commemorative photo album loaded with pictures from their trip.

"It was the most well-run thing I've ever come across," Ann said. "It's a whole day of being thanked for their service. I would encourage kids and grandkids of veterans to encourage them to go. It's a day they'll never forget.