By RENEE PRUSI
For The Daily News
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Robert Winton said the lottery may be next after being selected Thursday for a most special task.
From the left, Jerry Gauthier of Iron Mountain, Robert Winton of Quinnesec, Frank Fogle of Marquette and Bertrum Doutree of Escanaba pose just after they participated in the laying of the wreath ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., Thursday. The men were part of the U.P. Honor Flight that visited a number of landmarks throughout the day.
Winton, from Quinnesec, was one of four World War II veterans from the Upper Peninsula Honor Flight whose name was chosen to participate in the wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington Cemetery.
"It felt pretty darn good," Winton said after his name was announced along with Bert Doutree of Escanaba; Jerry Gauthier of Iron Mountain; and Frank Fogle of Marquette. "I guess I had better start playing the lottery after this. I can't believe it. I had to look around to see if there had been some kind of mistake."
Indeed, the solemn ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns was a highlight of this third visit to the nation's capital made by an Honor Flight group from the U.P., this time with nearly 80 veterans. The first "mission" was in September 2011 and the second in April 2012.
"We're planning another trip for next spring," said Barb VanRooy, Honor Flight coordinator. "We already have a waiting list started for that."
Fundraising for the spring 2013 flight will start soon. The Honor Flight trip is offered to World War II veterans at no cost to them. Each veteran is paired with a guardian who pays to make the journey and sees to the veteran's needs during a busy, history-filled one-day trip to Washington.
Honor Flights take place from many parts of the nation, all with the intent of giving as many World War II veterans as possible the chance to see the World War II Memorial, which opened in 2004.
After departing the Delta County Airport in Escanaba at 6:30 a.m. Thursday, the U.P. Honor Flight not only visited the World War II Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknowns, but also the Korea, Vietnam, Lincoln and Marine Corps memorials as well as taking a bus tour of the city. The bus tour included a police escort, meaning the group didn't have to stop for red lights as they made their way around the busy city.
For the first time, some of the group visited the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. The U.P. Honor Flight included five women World War II veterans this time around and they and some of the male veterans opted to visit that landmark instead of visiting the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Augusta Houser of Iron River was one of the five female World War II veterans. She served in the Women's Army Corps during the Second World War and said this special women's memorial was something discussed as early as 1950, when the first WAC alumni association formed.
"I think it's fine," she said after spending time at the museum. "It took a long time to get it and I think they've done a good job with it."
In the course of touring the first stop of the day at the World War II Memorial, the U.P. veterans were greeted by both of their U.S. senators, Debbie Stabenow, D-Ann Arbor, and Carl Levin, D-Detroit, who chatted with the vets and had photos taken.
"It is always a great privilege to honor Michigan's brave men and women who put their lives on the line to protect our country," Stabenow said. "The mission of the Honor Flight Network is a fitting tribute to our veterans, giving them an opportunity to see their memorials firsthand. We owe all of our veterans our unwavering support."
Levin said: "I know it was a moving visit for our U.P. vets to be at the World War II Memorial. The memorial recognizes their service to our country and the world, and it was a privilege to be with them as they saw the expression of our nation's gratitude."
Due to a lightning storm, the U.P. Honor Flight was two hours late in returning to Escanaba, not arriving until 11:30 p.m. Thursday, but still, hundreds of people lined the tarmac in the 30-some-degree weather to greet the veterans on their return.
Included in the group was U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, who shook the veterans' hands as they disembarked from the plane after a long, but exhilarating day spent in Washington.