Flight of a Lifetime

Fifty military veterans slowly snaked through Peoria International Airport as hundreds of well-wishers funneled the weary Honor Flight group from the gates, into the terminal and out the door. A bagpiper led the way and brought the group to a pause while someone sang the national anthem. Toward the end of the procession, Abraham Lincoln, Betsy Ross and George Washington impersonators greeted each veteran.

In the midst of the celebration, Bradley television arts major Kelly Rogers ’21 struggled to find camera angles. The Elk Grove Village, Ill., native lugged a heavy backpack of equipment through the crowd unsure of what would happen next, only knowing there was a better view somewhere ahead. As the trip’s official videographer, she wanted to capture the best moments from the long day’s homecoming.

“It was overwhelming for someone not directly involved in the organization, but it was absolutely awesome to be trusted with that responsibility,” Rogers said. “I had creative freedom to film whatever would be best and get as much as possible. It’s not something I ever thought I’d do.”

Like the finale, the rest of the day was a frenzied blur for the Greater Peoria Honor Flight’s 21st trip to Washington, D.C. since 2013. It started with a changing of the guard ceremony and wreath presentation at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. From there, the group split up and visited major sites like the Lincoln Memorial and the monuments honoring the past century’s armed conflicts and military service branches.

Rogers kept her eyes peeled for poignant moments while crisscrossing the National Mall. At the Air Force memorial, she found one veteran beaming after discovering his name etched into its base. Later, she captured tears of Vietnam veterans finding family and friends’ names etched into the black granite. She watched them while they made rubbings and quietly reminisced about fallen comrades.

Those small moments set the stage for one of the Honor Flight’s signature events on the way home — mail call. From a seat in the middle of the plane, Rogers watched each veteran receive heaping bags of correspondence to hearty applause. Notes, gifts and trinkets came from family, friends, legislators, elementary students and community members.

“I’m sure they were expecting a few letters, but there were bags and bags jam-packed with every letter imaginable,” Rogers said. “I enjoyed watching people’s faces as they tried to read everything, though it will take them a while to get through all the keepsakes.”

Once back on the ground, Rogers processed the whirlwind tour. Recalling emotional highlights and noting how frequently the veterans offered to help carry her equipment, she realized the trip provided a new perspective on American life.

“Being with these honored guests made me realize patriotism is about respecting and being grateful for the wonderful people who protected our freedom,” she said. “It was awesome to go through the day watching these men while I tried to capture the feelings of the day.”