ST. LOUIS — As a retired member of the U.S. Navy, Jim Sei has saluted fellow officers hundreds, if not thousands, of times. But the salute at the Lincoln Memorial on Nov. 2 was like none he had ever experienced.
“This was my first trip as a veteran,” said Sei.
He was among the 68 Vietnam and Korean War veterans who took part in the Greater St. Louis Honor Flight. In a single day, the group was flown to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorials dedicated to their service.
“With the exception of the day they were married, and the birth of their children, it is the very best day of their life,” Greater St. Louis Honor Flight Operations Director Jim Pettit said. “And if you can provide that kind of gratification to someone of that age, who served their country that long ago, why would you not do that?”
Their trip is funded by donations from individuals, companies, and foundations. The veterans are accompanied by guardians who cover their own expenses.
The veterans on this trip ranged in age from 77 to 92, and each one brought with them a unique experience.
“I’m the only Coast Guard Vietnam Veteran on the flight,” Vietnam veteran Bob Bellville said.
Sei was familiar with the jam-packed itinerary for The Greater St. Louis Honor Flight. He has been a volunteer with the organization since 2013.
He knew all the memorials stops: The Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam, Korea, Iwo Jima, Air Force, and Arlington National Cemetery. Experiencing all the sites in person was a different story.
“Even though I’ve been involved as long as I have, it’s just been way more than I expected,” he said, with his son, Bill Jr., by his side.
In fact, Sei had no idea that he was in for the experience of a lifetime.
His two daughters flew out to surprise him at the Lincoln Memorial. Hours later, Sei and the other 67 veterans aboard the Greater St. Louis Honor flight were in for the biggest event of all: a tremendous welcome home parade at Lambert Airport.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Sei said. “The biggest surprise of my life. An amazing day. One of the best days of my life.”