The showing of a documentary based on the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight brought tears to the eye, cheers from the crowd and broke a record for attendance. "Field of Honor," a documentary based on the journey of veterans to visit their war memorials in Washington, D.C., had its premier showing at Miller Park to a nearly sold-out crowd estimated at 33,000.
Official totals confirmed by a representative of the Guiness Book of World records put the exact attendance at 28,442.
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The Honor Flight Network began in 2004 when Earl Morse, a retired air force captain and physician's assistant at a VA clinic in Ohio realized most of his patients who were World War II vets had neither the funds nor the physical ability to make the trip to see their own memorial. The first flight was completed in December of 2004 with a small plane to get one veteran out to Washington, and as word spread of Morse's first flight, other pilots stepped forward to assist, and by 2005 the program had, well, taken off.
Locally, the Stars and Stripes program has had 14 flights using leased 747s leaving from General Mitchell International airport, carrying 2,130 veterans to Washington D.C., since its inaugural flight in November of 2008. It is one of six hubs in the state flying to Washington, and part of the nationwide effort that is expected to reach 100,000 veterans by the end of this year, but organizers are constantly under pressure to continue the flights.
"We lose a WWII veteran every 90 seconds, so it's extremely important to continue this mission," said Joe Dean, Chairman of Honor Flight.
Saturday's events were preceded by a suprise presentation for a man who had been wounded in Vietnam. David Hoile of Port Washington was awarded a Purple Heart 43 years after he was wounded. The veteran said he was "flabbergasted" to have the award presented at a press conference prior to the opening of the event.
As parking lots filled, guests were treated to World War II re-enactors, a replica 'Pillar of Honor' of the memorial as well as WWII-era music and bagpipers from the Greater Milwaukee Pipe & Drum Corps on the outside mall around the stadium. Inside the stadium, big band music played on a stage on the field and veterans were welcomed by Mayor Tom Barrett, and video messages were broadcast from Aaron Rodgers, Bart Starr and Bob Dole to name a few.
There was , both from veterans and those who came out in support.
Liz Carleton of Waukesha came out with her kids, Kirsten, 19 and Matt, 28. She said they have always supported the military and have been donors for the Honor Flight program, and wanted to take part in the day in person.
"I've taught my kids to take every opportunity to say thank you to our veterans, because it was how I was brought up," Liz said.
"It's just amazing to think of what these guys did for our freedom, and I think it's so important to show your support" Matt added.
Volunteer Mary Dibb from Muskego said she and husband Phil, a 33 year veteran of the Air Force, decided to volunteer in 2009 after she had heard it publicized on the radio.
"It's been such a rewarding opportunity, and overwhelming at times," she said.
After speeches by Mayor Tom Barrett, Governor Scott Walker, radio personality Charlie Sykes and other organizers, the movie began and played to a silent crowd, which only occasionally punctuated the show with applause. A fireworks show then capped off the evening.
Dan Hayes, a 29-year-old Wisconsin native and the director of the movie, said the experience has been an emotional one for him as well, but it was only a part of the story.
(If you missed the event, but want to catch the movie's release, text 'honor' to 70-000 on your cell phone.)
"It's really a story about freedom. I look out today and I see families enjoying themselves out here and that's an awesome and powerful thing and it's important to recognize that," he said. "We should never take those things for granted, these are things that are fundamentally good and were won for us by their sacrifice."
Joe Dean echoed the sentiment, adding, "there is no earthly way to thank our vets, but we're going to try anyway," he said. "These men literally saved the free world."