12:39 PM

Celebrating independence by thanking our veterans

I have a lot of respect for our military. My brother, Scott, joined the Air Force when he was 18, just before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Being around Scott and his friends ignited something in me. These were normal people bearing the burden of protecting freedom for us all. Their strength of character and selflessness made me feel safe. Because of them, the idea of service wasn't abstract any more. It gave me a lifelong appreciation for the people who serve in our military.

So when I had the chance to be a Badger Honor Flight guardian one Saturday this spring, I jumped at the opportunity. The program takes veterans to Washington D.C. for to visit memorials and monuments.

I accompanied Eric, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Navy. He was amazing, worldly and adventurous. He asked every person he met where they were from, and he knew something about almost all their hometowns.

He clearly likes to connect with people on a personal level. He asked me questions about my work, family and experiences. At one point, he said: "You see, this is what it's about – talking to people. No texting, no social media, just having real, face-to-face conversations."

The day was a whirlwind. At Arlington National Cemetery we saw the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We visited the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans, Korean War Veterans and World War II memorials. We saw the Marine Corps Memorial, an enormous 32-foot bronze statue of the flag raising at Iwo Jima.

One of the most moving moments was seeing the appreciation people poured out for these veterans. When we landed at Reagan International Airport, families passed out thank-you notes and applauded. It was the complete opposite of Eric's experience returning from Vietnam. He'd been told not to wear his uniform, but wore it anyway, and recalled being spit on by protestors at the San Francisco airport.

That gratitude continued when the Badger Honor Flight team shared letters from the veterans' families and local school children. The veterans said how special and appreciated they felt.

When we landed in Madison, friends and family were waiting, 10 deep, to welcome their veterans with signs, balloons and flowers. My brother, Scott, was there, and escorted Eric from the plane. My son, Trent, gave Eric a drawing, which he said will go on his wall of fame at home.

The entire experience was exciting. And overwhelming. The appreciation and love regular people showed our veterans made me as proud as I've ever been.

As we celebrate July 4 with friends and family, I'm thankful for the people who fought for democracy during the Revolutionary War, and the men and women in the U.S. Armed Forces who defend our freedom every day. And, my experience with Eric and the Badger Honor Flight makes me more grateful than ever for the selfless service of our veterans.


Jessie Stauffacher, American Family's chief operating officer, has always respected our military veterans. But accompanying one on a Badger Honor Flight increased her appreciation for these brave men and women.