MADISON (WKOW) -- "The trip of a lifetime" -- that's all anyone could say about Saturday's Badger Honor Flight. It was a one-day trip to Washington, D.C., that allows World War II veterans the chance to see memorials built in their honor.
Veterans arrived at the Dane County Regional Airport around 4:30 a.m. with just a small idea of what they were in for.
"I'm a little nervous," said veteran Army nurse Ines McMillan before the flight. "I just want to get there and see it because everybody tells me it's just awesome."
It was an extra special day for James Emery; Saturday was also his 87th birthday.
When the plane touched down in D.C., the vets were greeted with a water cannon salute and a surprise Badger reception at the gate, organized by UW-Madison alumni.
The first stop: the memorial created just for them. Built in 2004, the WWII memorial was something most of the vets had only heard about.
"I never realized this was so huge. Well, to take care of 50 states I guess it needs to be big," laughed Howie Heiliger, a Marine who spent three years in a Japanese POW camp.
Then the vets headed to the Iwo Jima memorial and an impressive group picture.
Next stop: Arlington National Cemetery and the Changing of the Guard ceremony.
Tombstone after tombstone, it was a somber reminder of friends killed in action.
"All I can say is I'm glad they didn't play taps or I would have lost it," said veteran Wayne Stamm.
There were only two female vets on this honor flight but they were not forgotten. The group made sure to stop at the Women's Memorial.
"I love it. I'm so happy that we get to see it because I didn't think we'd get to see it," said McMillan.
The final stop was the Air Force memorial, with just enough time for a few last pictures as the sun set over America's capital.
But there were still a few surprises left, including mail call, in which each veteran received a packet of letters and cards from family and friends to say "thank you" once again.
"They're always so shocked that people care about them. They're so humbled. And I think that's probably the best thing about these trips," said Dawn Dommisse, the logistics manager for the Badger Honor Flight.
"It's just the right thing to do to pay tribute to the fine men and women who served our country," said Brian Ziegler, president of the Badger Honor Flight.
Back home in Madison, the Honor Flight committee saved the best for last: More than 2,500 people gathered beneath the escalator in the airport, welcoming the veterans home like the heroes they are.
More than 65 years after the war's end, they got more praise and honor than they had ever imagined. Overcome with emotion, it was all they could do just to shake hands.
"I'm pretty dog-gone humbled," said veteran Kermit Sherman. "It's been - what do they call it? - a humongous day!"
A humongous day, and a humongous thank-you.
Stay tuned to 27 News at 10 on Monday and Tuesday for personal stories from the Badger Honor Flight.