WASHINGTON, D.C. — Norman Dale Leonard stood in the middle of the National World War II Memorial and wept.
Nearly 70 years went by before the monument stood in honor of the men and women who served in World War II in the nation’s capital. On Monday, 87 men and women saluted as they visited the monument.
Leonard’s shoulders heaved, and he stood silent and wept.
“You gotta realize when we got home, there were no parades and celebrations,” Leonard said. “All we did was take off our uniform and looked for a job. It’s hard to express one’s feelings. A lot of us had it pretty rough. We were just kids.”
Until now, Leonard said he thought his generation had been forgotten and unappreciated.
The day was marked by emotional highs and applauding passersby who stopped to thank the men and women for their service.
The veterans — now in the 80s, 90s and one even older than 100 — strolled through the monument under sun-soaked skies and took turns having their photos taken under the 17-foot granite Montana pillar.
Eighty-seven men and women flew on a chartered flight from Billings to Washington, D.C., on the second Big Sky Honor Flight — an honor designed to commemorate the sacrifices of these veterans. Additional tours, which cost about $155,000 each, are planned for early 2013 to accommodate the waiting list of World War II veterans who want to make the journey.
The nonprofit organization is part of a national network aiming to recognize the courage and sacrifice of the “Greatest Generation.”
The veterans were all bound by a common experience. It gave the men and women an opportunity to visit and reflect on the difficult years of the war and all the years since.
Some of the veterans sought solace at the memorial, which was first imagined in 1987. In 1993, the World War II Memorial Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
The memorial pays tribute to the 16 million Americans who served during the war. Some 405,399 of those were killed or declared missing. That is second only to the loss of more than 620,000 Americans during the Civil War.
Other Montana veterans, including Tom Hanel, 87, father of Billings Mayor Tom Hanel, visiting the memorial soaked in the significance of its expanse.
“It’s amazing,” the elder Hanel said. “It’s out of this world. It’s a little more than I expected.”
Staff members from the offices of Sen. Max Baucus, Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Denny Rehberg were at the memorial en masse. Baucus' wife, Mel, also was on hand.
Vern Koelzer, 90, of Billings waited in line to have his photo taken near the Montana pillar. He said the monument is more than a tribute to those who lost their lives and served their country.
“It’s a reminder to us that the world goes on and we should not have another war,” Koelzer said. “It should be something that produces a lasting peace. That’s what I hope.”
For the men and women who marched through the battlefields of Europe and landed on the bloody beaches of Normandy, this was one final campaign.
The veterans were up long before dawn Monday and walked and rolled in wheelchairs from charter buses without complaint. They showed no visible signs of fatigue from their two-day whirlwind tour of Washington, D.C.
Jim Walker and Buster Whittington, both 87 and both of Billings, are “beer-drinkin’ buddies" at the VFW. They said they had been treated like kings.
“The memorial was phenomenal, just out of this world,” Walker said. “It was more than I figured it would be.”
Whittington echoed his buddy’s sentiments, adding, “It was more awesome and lots larger than I thought it would be. I was just beautiful. It’s such an honor to be here.”