Angelo Curty smiles brightly in pictures from the most recent Stars and Stripes Honor Flight.
His expression reflected his sincerity about the opportunity at hand. The Waukesha resident had patiently awaited his turn to visit the memorials, a benefit enjoyed in recent years by others involved in a program that both honors veterans and gives them a chance to revisit an important part of their past.
Curty was in the Air Force for 20 years, having originally signed up during the Korean War so he "would get schooling." From 1951 to 1971, he worked his way from learning the basics of cooking and baking to leading a 32-man crew.
Times mostly cherished
"I had a job in a butcher shop as a teenager, and I think that experience helped me get into food service. We did a lot of meat-cutting and that stuff," Curty remembered.
Curty also recalled being the new kid with only 12 other Air Force men out of 22,000.
"We were at the bottom of the group," Curty said. "They had us get up at 3 a.m. to clean grease traps."
Still, he remembers his time fondly especially the education he received and enjoying weekends and summer camps.
Curty settled down and had a family. He went on to be an artist, worked in advertising and danced on cruise ships sailing "around the world." He even wrote a book about his adventures.
Still, when you ask Curty about his Honor Flight trip this May he tells you, "(It was the) most cherished day of my whole life. I'll never forget that."
Expanding the Honor
Curty had heard about the Honor Flights.
The program started with the Honor Flight Network, a non-profit organization "created solely to honor America's veterans for all their sacrifices," according to the organization's website, honorflight.org.
It transports veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect at their memorials. According to the website, top priority is given to the senior veterans — at first, that meant mostly World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill.
In Wisconsin, one of the Honor Flight hubs, the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight Inc., had announced plans to expand the program. Curty had sent in his application and then patiently waited for it to be time for Korean War veterans to be included on flights.
Last year, Stars and Stripes began inviting veterans of the 1950-53 conflict, along with WWII veterans and other ailing vets, to see their memorials in Washington, free of cost to them.
A special guide
When Curty arrived, he was one of about 60 Korean vets and 40 WWII vets. But unlike many of the veterans who attend with family, Curty's immediate family was unavailable for the trip, so he went with an assigned guardian he had never met: Carla McGinn, also of Waukesha.
"She was a wonderful guide, she guided me the whole day," Curty said, pointing out the fact that many veterans are offered wheelchairs to make the days easier, which he took advantage of.
McGinn helped in a way in which she wasn't even aware.
"By the end of the trip she said 'Your bag has been getting heavier.' She didn't know I had put six bottles of water in the bag," Curty added with a laugh.
No guide prepared him for his emotional arrival, however. That was a personal experience
Curty said that when he arrived in Washington, he immediately had tears in his eyes. He had been aware of elaborate "welcome home" gatherings at Gen. Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee, but not the greeting in Washington by a band and school children.
Not surprisingly, the most outstanding memorial to him was the Korean one. Curty went on to explain in detail the life-size statues of the forgotten war.
He also had a soft-spot for the Air Force memorial and enjoyed being able to see the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown solider.
For Curty, though, words stuck in his mind as much as certain images, thanks to another element of Honor Flights: special mail.
During the flight, veterans receive mail — sometimes from friends and family, sometimes from strangers. For Curty it amounted to huge stack of letters.
"I think I got 350 letters and cards. It took me days to read them all," he said. "I'm going to take some to the VA Hospital, because they are so touching — saying how they are so thankful for our service."
The strangers included children, who particularly impressed him.
"You wouldn't believe these 9-year-olds and 12-year-olds' writing; how patriotic they were," Curty said. "I never thought the younger generation thought anything of the military in our country, but, in these letters, it was just unbelievable."