Honor Flight veteran gets ultimate surprise after special D.C. trip

Villager Dave Zecher was all smiles as he came off the Honor Flight bus early Friday morning.

Army veteran Dave Zecher, second from left, poses with his daughter, Beth Schaad, wife Sherri and son Phil early Friday morning after Honor Flight 41.

Amid rounds of applause and shouts of “welcome home,” Zecher made his way through the Honor Guard line to his wife, Sherri. But unbeknownst to the former Army paratrooper who lives in the Village of St. Charles, she had their two adult children – Beth Schaad of Cincinnati and Phil Zecher of Connecticut – standing beside her waving American flags and welcoming their father back from a special trip to Washington, D.C. that included stops at the National World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial, as well as a bus tour through the city.

“I did not expect them to come,” the surprised 81-year-old veteran said after the ceremony at American Legion Post 347.

Zecher chuckled when he found out that Schaad had actually spent part of the night in her car so he wouldn’t know she was there. And that chuckle turned to laughter when he discovered that she had to completely conceal herself in the car when he went out for a late-night walk.

“As soon as he walked past, I ran into the house,” Schaad said.
“We hid her in another part of the house and he never knew she was here,” Sherri added.

The American Legion Post 347 Honor Guard awaits the return of the 62 veterans early Friday morning.

Zecher said that while the day was a long one – the veterans and their guardians had been up more than 24 hours when they returned home around 2:15 a.m. – it was quite busy and well worth it. And he added that the Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery was the highlight of the trip.

“It was emotional,” he said quietly.

Congressman Daniel Webster, right, visits with veteran Russ Smith in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

Schaad, who couldn’t stop hugging her father, said “he looked a little dazed” when he came off the bus.

“I think he just woke up,” she said with a laugh.

Sherri said she’s quite proud of her husband and very thankful he got to make the trip.

“This is wonderful,” she said. “I’m blown away by the volunteers, the organization – it’s just pretty incredible.”

Honor Flight veterans salute during the singing of the national anthem.

Son Phil agreed.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for these vets,” he said. “I think it’s wonderful.”

LaVerne Holtz, of the Village of Virginia Trace, was passing out flags for the return of the Honor Flight veterans.

Zecher said the week couldn’t have been much better for him, because in addition to the Honor Flight trip, he scored a hole-in-one Wednesday on the third hole at Tarpon Boil Executive Golf Course.

“It’s my first hole-in-one,” Zecher said of his 150-yard shot with a 3 wood. “Yeah, I’d say it’s been a pretty good week.”

Thursday’s flight marked the 41st mission for Villages Honor Flight. Since its inception in July 2011, the group has taken more than 1,100 veterans to our nation’s capital. And this flight was even more special because it was dedicated to late Villages Honor Flight founder Mark Erdrich.

“We wouldn’t be here today without everything Mark set up,” said flight director Liza Walters, who was wearing the vest Erdrich wore on flights and donated to the group before he died earlier this year.

Villages Honor Flight’s next mission will be Oct. 31. And mission 43 will take place Nov. 17.

Veteran Russ Smith and his guardian, Debbie Winters.
Veterans enjoy the ceremony at the end of their flight.