It was an honor decades in the making.
World War II veteran and Hamilton resident Melvin Eilers, 90, and his daughter, Donna Wagner of Stephenville, were given the opportunity to celebrate Memorial Day early alongside 24 of his fellow WWII survivors and a veteran of the Vietnam War with Honor Flight Fort Worth.
Honor Flight is a charitable organization with one mission, to transport veterans to their respective war memorials in Washington, D.C.
Wagner said the flight, which left DFW airport at 6 a.m. May 9 bound for Reagan International Airport transported the veterans to a day of regalia and honor.
"They were given a true heroes welcome complete with a band, cheering crowd, well wishers waving flags and hand shaking," Wagner recalled.
A bagpiper led the veterans to their destination, the WWII Memorial, which was dedicated by President George W. Bush on May 29, 2004 to honor "The Greatest Generation."
"They laid a wreath at the memorial and were honored by a trumpeter from the president's band," Wagner said, adding the group also toured the Korean, Vietnam, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Iwo Jima memorials. "They also visited Arlington National Cemetery and viewed the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier."
It was a once in a lifetime experience for Eilers.
"We viewed the Air Force Memorial which was especially moving for my father since he was in the Army-Air Force," Wagner said.
Eilers vividly recalls but rarely talks about his fight in four battles in Rome-Arno, Italy, Southern France and North Apennines and Po Valley, Italy from Jan. 1944-May 8, 1945.
"When those soldiers came back from war, they didn't get a heroes welcome," Wagner said. "They returned from doing their jobs with the military and went straight to work."
The veterans on the Honor Flight, who ranged in age 86 to 92, got to know their comrades in a little less than 24 hours, and said the honor was something they had never experienced.
"You see that talking about their experiences and remembering the events really helped them, really did something positive. Through the day, many of the vets shared memories of heroism and fellow soldiers who did not return," Wagner said. "It brought the pride that had been laid aside for all of these years. He was proud of his service and sacrifice."
Wagner said the trip taught her things about her father she didn't know.
"As a child, you take so many things for granted and often fail to thank your parents and other adults for their service and sacrifice and this trip really helped me realize how important that is," she said. "It was a bonding experience like no other, and I am so grateful we were able to share it."
The father/daughter duo also saw firsthand that today's youth are in some ways more aware of the sacrifices made by the men and women of the United States military.
"There were a lot of youth groups touring the memorials and so many of those young people came up to the veterans to thank them for their service," Wagner said. "The vets were proud and so were the children. They talked to the vets and took pictures with them."
When their return flight landed in DFW, a proud Eilers had one thing to say.
"He said, 'I've never shaken so many hands,'" Wagner said.
Honor Flight first sprouted its wings in May 2005 when six small planes flew out of Springfield, Ohio taking 12 World War II veterans to visit Washington D.C. In its inaugural year, HFN transported 137 veterans to visit war memorials, according to honorflight.org.
Last year the flights grew to more than 18,000, bringing the seven-year total to more than 81,000 veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
It is a free service for those who proudly and quietly fought for their fellow Americans, a sacrifice the nation will honor on Monday.