At the age of 94, Lucille Strohbeen took the trip of a lifetime. A former Army Corps Nurse who lives at The Deerfield in New Richmond, Wisconsin, Lucille joined fellow World War II, Korean and Vietnam War veterans on May 12, 2018 for the Freedom Honor Flight™.
The trip was hosted by Freedom Honor Flight, a nonprofit organization based in La Crosse, Wisconsin, that provides all-expense-paid trips for veterans to Washington, D.C. The organization is affiliated with the National Honor Flight Network. Since the nationwide program began in 2005, hundreds of flights have ferried thousands of veterans to see the war memorials in the nation’s capital built in their honor.
Each veteran is accompanied by a family member or friend to serve as a guardian. Lucille, who served in WWII, was accompanied by Gwen Neidermire, her niece by marriage. Rising before 1:30 a.m., Gwen’s daughters, Lynn and Kalley drove Lucille and Gwen from New Richmond to the La Crosse Regional Airport to catch a charter flight to Washington D.C. They were greeted at Hogan Hangar #4 by volunteers who had prepared a continental breakfast for them. As they boarded the plane, the honored veterans were cheered on by local veterans, Girl Scouts and community members while a student band played patriotic tunes to send them off.
Lucille was in good company alongside five other WWII veterans, among them, one other female veteran army nurse. Also joining them were 60 Korean War veterans and 26 Vietnam War Veterans. The entourage included physicians, paramedics, bus drivers and volunteers who traveled in support of the veterans to ensure their well being throughout the trip. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to go,” Lucille said, “But my relatives thought it would be a good experience for me.” Now, she’s glad she said yes. “It was a different and interesting experience, of course,” she said.
The group took off at 5:15 a.m. Lucille flew in the comfort of first class in the plane with the interior decorated in red, white and blue to mark the celebration.
A Hero’s Welcome
They arrived at Reagan International Airport in Washington D.C. by mid-morning and were met by an applauding crowd and presented a full itinerary and a charter bus for the day. The honorees spent the day exploring the monuments and memorials in the capital including the World War II Memorial, the Korean Conflict Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, The Lincoln Memorial, the 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon and The Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
“It was remarkable,” Lucille described the WWII memorial with its 50 pillars, one for each state. Lucille made a point to locate the Wisconsin and California pillars—two states she has called home. She also stopped at the pillar noting the service of women during WWII. Lucille saw the Korean War Memorial where life-size bronze statues of solders are positioned as if marching through a grassy field.
Lucille was particularly enthused to see the Tomb of the Unknowns where she and Gwen witnessed the Changing of the Guard. “That was something to see!” she said with admiration for her fellow soldiers, more than seven decades younger.
Throughout the day the veterans were greeted, cheered and thanked by people surrounding them. “I have never had my hand shook so much before,” said Lucille. She was especially impressed when former Kansas Senator Bob Dole, a WWII veteran himself, met and greeted them. “We were told that Senator Dole likes to come out and greet Honor Flight veterans when they come,” said Gwen.
Service as an Army Corps Nurse
Lucille studied nursing at Anker Hospital School of Nursing in St. Paul, Minnesota. She served in the Army Nurse Corps from March 1945 to May 1946. “I signed up for the service with two of my nurse friends,” she recalls. “They were sent overseas and I was assigned to an Army hospital in Colorado.” Lucille worked as an operating room nurse, assisting with surgeries of wounded soldiers returning home. She rose to the rank of Second Lieutenant and was awarded the WWII Victory Medal.
Lucille completed her service and settled in to civilian life. She worked as a school nurse in Long Beach, California for 40 years before retiring and returning to her home town of New Richmond and moving to The Deerfield in 2009. “Throughout her first years back in New Richmond, I had no idea that she had served in the Army during WWII,” said Gwen. She recently learned about Lucille’s military service by scribing letters for her to old friends, including a fellow Army Corps nurse who wrote back with recollections of their service days together. Gwen thought, “Really? This is a big deal!” She explored some of Lucille’s scrapbooks and found a photograph of her at 22 years old in uniform as well as her service record. Lucille’s army nurse friend encouraged Gwen to take Lucille on the Freedom Honor Flight.
Well-deserved honors abound
The Honor Flight proved to be a great experience for them both. “Wherever we stopped, people came over to us and thanked us for our service and clapped as we went by,” said Lucille. The applause, salutes and hugs showered on these veterans, demonstrated an appreciation they may not have received more than 70 years ago. Even more powerful than the aesthetics of the monuments were the memories they evoked. “Many of the veterans had tears in their eyes from the gratitude given them throughout the day,” said Gwen. “I kept watching Lucille’s face as she took it all in,” she said.
After the full and emotional day, the veterans boarded the return flight to Wisconsin but the honors were not yet over. During the return trip, war veterans were alerted to a “mail call” in which each honoree was presented with an envelope filled with letters from friends and family thanking them for their valor and service to their country. Among the messages to Lucille were these tributes:
“Thank you for your service to our country. My father Russell served too. He was able to take the flight of Honor- said it was great. Hope your flight was as rewarding. With sincere thanks, Cindy."
"Thank you for serving our country! There are not words big enough. There is not a hug strong enough. There is not a smile wide enough. All I can offer is THANK YOU. You are my hero for all you've done. Thank you, Diane"
Along with the many letters, Gwen’s daughter created and presented Lucille with a large, framed letter signed by residents and staff of The Deerfield thanking Lucille for her service. “It meant so much to her,” said Gwen.
After a long and full day, the plane landed at La Crosse at midnight. Once again the hangar was filled with many of the same people who sent them off. As the middle school band struck up again, there was cheering, waving and shaking of hands. The return greeting was topped off by a show of fireworks. Kalley and Lynn met their mother and great-aunt, ready to drive them back to New Richmond. Weary, but with their hearts and minds overflowing, Lucille and Gwen headed home.
Women have served alongside their male counterparts as official members of the military since WWI, but stories of their service often go untold. As we celebrate our nation’s independence, we recognize the service of military women and honor the invaluable healing care of Army nurses like Lucille.