Area Korean War veteran takes honor flight

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Louie Wachter, of Millville, took the Freedom Honor Flight Oct. 17 to Washington D.C. with 86 other veterans to see the memorials that stand in their honor. He is shown here in front of the 19 stainless steel statues making up the Korean War Memorial, which he described as realistic and somewhat haunting as the sun set.

Louie, who was accompanied by his daughter Susie Mergen on the honor flight, got to meet former Senator Bob Dole at the WWII Memorial.

Several group pictures of the Freedom Honor Flight veterans were captured during the trip. This one was in front of the WWII Memorial and includes only part of those veterans on the honor flight. Louie is second from the right, in the front row. Wheelchairs were available to every veteran and provided for those who didn’t feel they could walk all day around the many memorials.

Louie and his daughter, Susie, posed in front of the Korean War Memorial.

By Correne Martin

Korean War Army veteran Louie Wachter, 85, of Millville, respectfully reflected upon his fallen comrades first when telling about his Oct. 17 Freedom Honor Flight experience: “A person feels kind of humbled because there were so many more who didn’t get to go.”

Louie was one of 69 Korean veterans, 13 World War II veterans and five Vietnam veterans who took the honor flight to Washington D.C. to visit the memorials that stand in their honor. It was the 16th one-day trip from La Crosse since the organization started in April 2008. Two flights have gone every year since then.

Louie applied to the Freedom Honor Flight organization two years ago. In August this year, he received a call saying he was picked to go.

“Everybody said I should go. But, I said the only way I’d go was if my daughter (Susie Mergen) could go too,” he said.

“Most of them on the La Crosse flight were accompanied by family members,” Mergen noted.

Just two months after being notified he would go, Louie and his daughter were in La Crosse bound for the Capital. They stayed at the Days Inn the night prior to the flight at a discounted rate for veterans.

Then, on Saturday, they arrived at 5:30 a.m. to a hangar at the airport, where the pomp and circumstance was like no other—greater than many of the veterans received upon their return from war.

Hundreds of family members, friends and community members packed the hangar that morning to send off the veterans and guardians most appropriately. The honor guard and color guard saluted them, a group of kids sang military songs and the national anthem and pledge were recited. American flags and patriotic signs appeared all over the room and there were plenty of handshakes and hugs to go around.

“I shook more hands than I expected. I felt like a politician,” Louie snickered.

When they deboarded the jet plane in Washington D.C.—the first big plane ride Louie’s ever taken—the fanfare was just as majestic. The ramp off the plane was covered in red, white and blue and a police escort led and followed the four buses of about 200 honor flight patrons (veterans, guardians, physicians, paramedics and organization staff) around the city.

All of the veterans’ food was included in their all-expenses-paid trip and each of them received shirts commemorating the Freedom Honor Flight as well.

“We were treated like royalty,” Louie commented.

The day consisted of stops at nearly every monument in Washington D.C., for World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Iwo Jima, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Air Force Memorial, Lincoln Memorial as well as Arlington National Cemetery, where Louie and Susie were mesmerized by the Changing of the Guard. Louie couldn’t believe the silence and how the guards stood at attention the entire time.

The honor flight group also drove by the Capitol, Pentagon and Smithsonian. So many stops made for a whirlwind of a trip.

“We covered everything, so much that it’s hard to comprehend. It’s something everybody should see,” Susie said.

“If you went for a week, you wouldn’t see it all,” Louie added.

Between taking in all the attractions, Louie and Susie had intentions of spending some time at the World War II Memorial with Ben Lease, a Fennimore native and son of one of Louie’s friends, Vince Lease. Ben is a captain in the Marines and works for the Walter Reed Health Care System.

“He knew dad was coming and wanted to meet up with us. It was a very nice time and Ben had a lot of good questions for dad,” Susie said.  

They also had the opportunity to meet former Senator Bob Dole, who was seated in front of the World War II Memorial shaking hands and talking to the honor flight veterans. Dole was instrumental in pushing for that memorial to have its place in Washington D.C.

During his time visiting the Korean War Memorial, Louie said he was flooded with memories of his moments as a soldier.

Louie, the second youngest of seven Wachter brothers from Mount Hope, was only 22 years old, in November 1952, when he was wounded in a grenade explosion on Heartbreak Ridge Hill. Shrapnel hit his upper lip, knocking out his four front teeth, his eardrums were broken, his left hand and knee were hit by shrapnel, and his face was filled with mortar fragments. He played dead when an enemy soldier crawled into the foxhole in which he had sought protection.

“It was kind of emotional,” he said, briefly, about the memorial in his honor.

During their hour-and-a- half flight home, the veterans were surprised with mail call. Louie received letters of thanks from students at River Ridge elementary and St. Mary’s School-Bloomington. He also opened notes of gratitude from 26 others who heard Louie was taking the honor flight.

Back in La Crosse, after 10 p.m., the Freedom Honor Flight was welcomed home by 3,000 people and as much excitement as when they left. The UW-La Crosse and Onalaska High School bands played and there were fireworks too.

There to share the moment with Louie were about 12 of his friends and family members, who continued the celebration at the hotel until 2 a.m. Sunday.

When asked his impression of the many memorials, Louie said, in just a few words, “I think they’re pretty nice.”

“It was a lot different than I thought. I was surprised at how close everything was out there,” Susie said of her impression.

According to freedomhonorflight.org, World War II and Korean War veterans had priority status for Freedom Honor Flight until this year, when all of the World War II veterans on the waiting list were served.

Officials estimate that, in the 25 counties the hub now serves, there remain more than 5,000 World War II veterans who haven’t yet participated in an honor flight. The group encourages them to apply.

Physicians and paramedics accompanying each flight help with oxygen, medication and personal needs, enabling those with chronic health problems or disabilities to attend. A guardian assigned to each veteran provides additional assistance.

Susie added that applying is simple. It involves filling out an easy, one-page form. Guardians pay $500 to accompany a loved one and that’s all inclusive. “I would definitely recommend all veterans to go,” she said.

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