Emotional "welcome home" for local veterans

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (KSNB) - More than 75 veterans are back home after the Hall County Hero Flight, and received a celebration some may have never gotten.

Veterans return home from the Hall County Hero Flight Wednesday at the Central Nebraska Regional Airport. (Source: Kelsey Dickeson, KSNB)

The veterans landed at the Central Nebraska Regional Airport Wednesday evening. Hundreds of people were there to greet them.

After getting off the plane, the veterans went through a path lined with a color guard and Patriotic Guard Riders. The Northwest marching band played as they walked.

Family, friends, and supporters lined the rest of the way. They held up signs, reading "Thanks for your service," and "Welcome home Grandpa." People greeted the vets as they went, and shook their hands.

"He will be very surprised. He doesn't know anybody is doing this. We want to thank him for his service and welcome him home," said Martha McGahan.

McGahan was part of a group of former teachers from Northwest High School. They got together to welcome back their former student and navy veteran, Roger Harrie, from the Hero Flight.

Harrie served during Vietnam. He did 2.5 tours in Crete and the Mediterranean.

As Harrie got closer, the teachers cheered him on and held up signs in his honor, ending in an embrace.

"To have them hug me, and teachers I haven't seen in so long, and they all remembered me. That was really moving," Harrie said.

This greeting wasn't only unexpected, but also something Harrie has never experienced.

"I didn't know how to act, because I've never had it before," Harrie said.

This is a similar situation for many other veterans, mostly those who served in Vietnam and Korea.

That's the case for Eugene "Butch" Nielsen, a Vietnam vet.

"When I came home on leave between my first and second deployment, we were told to get out of uniform and travel home out of uniform. That kind of hurt," Nielsen said.

Nielsen was one of the veterans on the Hall County Hero Flight. He said his favorite part was visiting the WWII memorial, and taking a private tour of the Capital Building.

It's been about 50 years since Nielsen returned back to the states from Vietnam. He was injured during his second tour, and spent about a year in the hospital.

Although he never got that warm "greeting" before, he most certainly did on Wednesday.

His family and friends greeted him with signs and hugs when he got off the plane.

"It was awesome that he got to have the welcome home tonight that he didn't get to have 50 years ago. It was awesome," said Michelle Setlik, Nielsen's daughter.

"This whole thing is just awesome. i just can't believe it. You can't feel how proud you are to be part of it," Nielsen said.

More than 160 people went on the Hall County Hero Flight this year. That includes family members and travel companions. The veterans represented 15 counties in Nebraska, as well as towns in California and Kasnas.

They spent three days in Washington D.C. visiting war memorials, cemeteries and more.

Gary Quand, a board member of the Hall County Hero Flights, organized the welcome home celebration. The biggest part of it is thanking the veterans, and making them feel appreciated.

"The Korean and Vietnam Vets were ignored to some extent. When they came home they didn't come home as a unit. They took their uniform off and went to work and that was the last you heard of their service. This gives them an opportunity to share that experience," said Don Shuda, Hall County veterans service officer.

At last, some of the veterans got the thanks they never did before.

"When I walked off the flight deck of the four stall that was my goodbye," Harrie said.