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Walking from the terminal and toward the stairs at Billings Logan International Airport, Jim Ellison first saw a sea of waving flags.

As he descended the stairs, the scene spread out before him and for the first time he saw the hundreds of well-wishers gathered to welcome him home.

Ellison was one of dozens of veterans returning from Washington, D.C. — all participants on the Big Sky Honor Flight, the program that flies World War II veterans to the nation's capital to see the memorial built in their honor.

Ellison is an Army veteran who served in the 101st Airborne in World War II. Exhausted from the journey, he had no idea he would be welcomed home by crowds of cheering fans.

"I'm flabbergasted," he said, smiling. "Very much surprised."

The trip, and the opportunity to see the memorials to American veterans, was remarkable, he said.

But more meaningful, he said, were the crowds that saw the group off as they departed and welcomed them back Monday night.

"That's the high point," he said. "It was just overwhelming."

Cheryl Gangstad arrived at the airport Monday night with her husband, Orval, to welcome home Cheryl's uncle Charles Eskro, another World War II veteran.

Eskro served in the Pacific and holds a special place in Cheryl's life. Cheryl's father died when she was young, and her Uncle Charles stepped in and became a sort of second father to her.

"This is a special guy," she said. "He always made us feel good."

She said it means a lot for those of her uncle's generation to have the chance to travel to Washington and visit the memorials. But it's also meaningful for the relatives and the members of the community they left behind to be able to come out and show support and appreciation for the service they gave, she said.

Phyllis Crawford was in the crowd Monday night to show support. Her brother James Walker was one of the veterans to participate in the Honor Flight. He's a Navy veteran who served in the European theater of the war and in the Pacific.

"I was at Iwo Jima," he said. "And I was at Omaha Beach."

The war, he quipped, "kept us busy."

Like many of the veterans on the flight, Walker was surprised by the reception waiting for him at the airport.

"I never dreamt of anything like this," he said. "I've never experienced anything like this."

He, too, appreciated the chance to see the monuments.

"The wonderful memorials," he said. "God, they were beautiful."

Crawford was glad her brother had the opportunity. Like many of the family members gathered at the airport, she sees the Honor Flight program as an important and wonderful way to honor those, like her brother, who served their country in war.

"It's very meaningful for them," she said.

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Digital Director

Digital director at the Billings Gazette.