Local veterans get 'trip-of-a-lifetime' thanks to Melaleuca - East Idaho News

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Local veterans get ‘trip-of-a-lifetime’ thanks to Melaleuca

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WASHINGTON — It was the “journey of a lifetime” for eight military veterans who traveled to the nation’s capital last week on an all-expenses paid trip courtesy of Melaleuca.

Ken Collins, Alan Gunn, Bill Jensen, Jim Lovejoy, Jim Pletscher, Roy Reed, Joe Robinson and Dave Siebert spent two days exploring monuments, museums, memorials and more in Washington, D.C., for the first-ever Idaho Veterans Appreciation Event.

“Oh my gosh, it was unbelievable,” Reed told EastIdahoNews.com. “You talk about being honored. It’s been a joy! It’s a dream of a lifetime and something you would like to see happen for all veterans.”

Reed served four years in the Korean War. He was drafted into the Navy in 1951, four days out of high school.

Last year, he went on an Honor Flight with dozens of veterans from Utah. Honor Flight is a national organization that transports American Veterans to Washington to visit historical memorials and monuments.

Reed loved the trip so much, he wanted to do something similar for veterans in our area. Idaho does not have an Honor Flight program, so he went to Frank VanderSloot and asked if he’d like to sponsor one.

“He said, ‘Yes, I would, but I want to do it my way,'” Reed recalled. “I said, ‘OK, that’s fine. Tell me what your way is.’ He said, ‘We’ll haul you to Washington, D.C., and you tell me what you want to do when you get there, and we’ll take care of it.'”

The trip was arranged, the veterans were chosen, and they were invited to ride with Melaleuca’s executive chairman to the nation’s capital on the company’s private plane. EastIdahoNews.com went along for the journey.

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The veterans were invited to ride with Melaleuca Executive Chairman Frank VanderSloot on the company plane to Washington, D.C. | Jordan Wood, EastIdahoNews.com

After three hours in the air and a 40-degree temperature change, the group landed in Washington. They went to a fancy hotel on Embassy Row, where a buffet dinner was waiting.

During the dinner, VanderSloot arranged to surprise each of the men with a veteran hero hat and pins specific to their branch of service.

“I’m honored to be here in your presence, and I’m honored to be able to celebrate in a real small way the contribution that you’ve all made to this great country,” VanderSloot said, holding back tears. “These men who didn’t come home – we’ll never hear their stories. They had a story, every one of them. They had a story, and most of their stories will never be told.”

PHOTO GALLERY: IDAHO VETERAN TRIP TO WASHINGTON D.C.

At 91, Reed was the oldest in the group. Lovejoy, 56, was the youngest, having served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and a current member of the US Army Reserves.

“I can never give back to the country what the country has given to me. Ever. I’m in debt to the country, to the military, to the people more than I can ever pay back, ever,” Lovejoy said. “I’m trying to do what I can to help the country and to help others.”

For Pletscher, a Vietnam War veteran, this trip was extra special. His nephew, 41-year-old Marine Corp. Major Christopher Lucas, is one of 400,000 veterans buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

It’s the same place President John F. Kennedy is laid to rest, next to the eternal flame, and every hour there’s a changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington.

Many of these veterans held back tears during the sacred ceremony, and Pletscher’s dream of seeing his nephew’s gravesite came true.

“I am absolutely blown away on this trip. I have now seen many things that I had not had the opportunity previously, so I am so grateful that somehow I was included on this trip,” he said.

Seeing the burial site was just one of many special moments for Pletscher. Among the 58,000 names on the 200-foot Vietnam Memorial Wall, he found two classmates from the U.S. Naval Academy who lost their lives in the war.

He traced their names with his fingers and left behind two red flowers.

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Jim Pletscher runs his fingers over the name of a colleague who died in the Vietnam War. | Nate Eaton, EastIdahoNews.com

“I wanted to identify more with them. I wanted to identify that they were close to me,” he said.

Along this same wall, Vietnam vet Bill Jensen, who had never been there before, found the name of Gary Smith.

“I got to eat with him. I got to do everything with him, and I got to use my finger and touch his name,” Jensen said. “That was probably as close as a guy would like to come to try and keep from crying in front of some tough men. I took the easy way out. I come home alive, but he gave it all. He gave it all.”

The stories are many along the Vietnam Wall, and at the nearby Korean War Veterans Memorial, Reed had stories of his own. Forty thousand Americans died in the war fought over 70 years ago.

“It brings back a lot of old memories that are good, and some of them not-so-good memories,” Reed said through tears.

Although some of the veterans on this journey had been to Washington, D.C., before, their visits were never anything like this. Not only did they get to visit monuments and witness history, but the group developed a brotherly bond.

“It’s been incredibly humbling to be with these guys, spend time with them and listen to them share their stories,” said Gunn. “There’s just a common bond of everybody that served in the military together.”

Collins, who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, added, “It’s been really good. This is a good bunch of guys. It’s nice to be around the other veterans and the comradery that they bring.”

That comradery was shared over delicious meals, paid for by Melaleuca, and a special celebration for Jensen’s 79th birthday.

The group also visited the National Archives, where they received a VIP tour and saw the Constitution of the United States along with other historical documents.

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The veterans visited Arlington National Cemetery and other historic sites. | Nate Eaton, EastIdahoNews.com

Other highlights include a night tour of the monuments, a visit to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, and a thought-provoking stop at the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, where 184 lives were lost, including that of Sugar City native Brady Howell.

After two days of making new friends, exploring history, and reliving memories from decades ago, it was time for this group of heroes to head back to Idaho.

The veterans presented VanderSloot with a special framed photo of the group, and when they arrived back at the Melaleuca airplane hanger in Idaho Falls, family members, friends and a band were there to welcome them home.

“This trip has been amazing. It’s hard to even describe the feelings, the emotions, as well as the visuals, the sites, the memorials, the recognition and then the overall feeling of thankfulness. It’s been an amazing trip,” Lovejoy said.

Many of these men didn’t know each other before his journey, and hardly any of them had ever met VanderSloot.

But now, they’ll never forget each other, and many of them said this once-in-a-lifetime trip changed them forever.

“The average age of the boys (on the Vietnam Memorial Wall) was 19 years old. A lot of those boys will never experience what I’ve experienced,” Robinson said, holding back tears.

“I just enjoyed what Frank’s done for us. I’ll probably never see it again, but it’s been a real pleasure, I tell you,” said Siebert.

“It was a pleasure to serve. I’ve served my God, I’ve served my country, I feel like I’ve done my best,” said Jensen.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW A PHOTO GALLERY FROM THE TRIP

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