LAKE CITY — It’s something Missaukee County Sheriff Wil Yancer always desired to do.
Yancer, an Army veteran who served in a military police unit from 1976 to 1979, including a year in South Korea and two years at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, participated recently as a guardian for the Mid-Michigan Honor Flight, escorting Vietnam veteran John Gleeson of Houghton Lake to Washington, D.C.
“Being a veteran myself and a patriotic person, I really liked what the Honor Flights were doing for the veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam and thought it would be a great honor for me to be accepted as a volunteer for one of the flights,‘ Yancer said.
Yancer, a Saginaw native who served for 28 years with the Saginaw County Sheriff’s Department before relocating to this area and becoming undersheriff for Missaukee County in 2008 before succeeding Jim Bosscher as sheriff following Bosscher’s retirement at the end of 2018, applied to be an Honor Flight volunteer more than a year-and-a-half ago.
“I didn’t hear anything and then last month (April) out of the blue, I received a call and they told me they have a vet who needs a guardian for the upcoming flight,‘ he said.
“I jumped at the chance.‘
Yancer found out that John Gleeson, the veteran he would be escorting, is from nearby Houghton Lake.
“John is retired from Consumers and was involved in prison ministry for years through Forgotten Man Ministries,‘ Yancer said.
“I went over and met with him a couple of times and we got to know each other a little bit before we left. He has some mobility issues but he’s a wonderful guy, married with grown children. We hit it off pretty quickly.‘
Yancer picked up Gleeson on Tuesday, May 21, and they traveled together to Ferris State University, where they enjoyed a meal with the other veterans and guardians who would be participating in this particular Honor Flight before spending the night in the dorms there.
“They fed us dinner and had a program afterward,‘ Yancer said. “They told us what to expect and had some training for the guardians who would be going. There were about 65 veterans who went, so it was a pretty good crowd.‘
Yancer said there was a mix of veterans of the three wars in the group.
“Five of the veterans from World War II who were part of the group were 100 years old,‘ he said. “One of them is probably the oldest living veteran who served as one of the sentries at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He guarded the tomb back in the 1940s. Another gentleman from the group was a Medal of Honor winner from the Vietnam War.
“It was pretty amazing just to be there and soak it all in. I was thrilled to be there with John.‘
On Wednesday morning after breakfast, the group was transported to the Grand Rapids airport to take the flight to Washington.
“There were women there dressed in the style and hairdos of the 1940s,‘ Yancer said.
“The organizers really went out of their way to make the veterans know they’re appreciated for their service.‘
After the group arrived in D.C., there was a group waiting for them at the airport welcoming the veterans with signs and flags.
The Mid-Michigan Honor Flight group, one of three such groups in the nation’s capital that day, including one from the U.P., was escorted by bus on the “whirlwind tour‘ to the World War II Monument, the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam Wall, the Iwo Jima Monument, the Air Force Museum, the Lincoln Memorial and the Arlington National Cemetery where they saw the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“There was so much to take in from all the different places but it was an incredible experience for all of us,‘ Yancer said.
“The tour guide on the bus gave us facts about the different monuments all day long.‘
When the honor flights come to the nation’s capital, there are police motorcycle escorts in place for the buses so they can travel directly from one site to another, another one of those extras that indicated how the organizers did everything possible to make this a special time for the veterans and for everyone involved.
“The best part for me was seeing the reaction of the vets who had never seen the monuments before,‘ Yancer said.
“The veterans of each war reacted more to the monuments that were in their honor.‘
Yancer said his veteran was thoroughly enjoying the tour.
“John was ecstatic; he had never seen any of the monuments before,‘ Yancer said.
“I snapped some pictures for him. He was awed by it all. He loved the Vietnam Wall Memorial but he was also quite impressed with the Korean War Memorial.‘
Yancer said the most significant moment for him personally was at the Arlington National Cemetery during the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“It was very solemn,‘ he said. “You look at all those gravestones of all those soldiers who literally gave everything to preserve the freedoms of our country and you couldn’t help be affected by that.‘
Yancer said one of the veterans in the group made the remark that each of those gravestones actually represents two lives, the one they sacrificed in the war and the one they could have had if they survived.
When the group returned from Washington and landed back at the Grand Rapids Airport, there were people there to greet them and welcome the veterans back and there was something else that was significant for the veterans: mail call.
“That was beautiful to see,‘ Yancer said. “I can tell you from personal experience, when a veteran is overseas, there’s nothing he or she loves to see more than a letter from home. For these veterans who were overseas during the war, how much more did mail call mean for them?
“They did a mail call after we got back and the veterans all received letters from loved ones. For the veterans, it was very moving and exciting and a terrific way to end a very long day but a very memorable day.‘
Yancer said he and John were in a four-bed dorm that night with a father and son from Big Rapids. They discussed the trip together and stayed up well past midnight. The 92-year-old father, a World War II veteran, was bone tired from the trip but even so, he said he would not go to bed until he read all the letters he received.
“That’s the kind of day it was,‘ Yancer said.
“The whole experience was very, very moving to see John and all the other veterans who answered the call during war time being recognized for their service. For me, it ranks as one of the top 10 experiences of my lifetime. I would recommend volunteering for an Honor Flight for anyone who could do it.‘