"Magnificent!" "Awesome!" "Impressive!"
Local veterans who joined State Sen. George Maziarz on Oct. 6 for his WNY Heroes trip are still bubbling over with enthusiasm.
Thirty-four World War II veterans, all but two from Niagara County, were flown to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II Memorial. None of the veterans had yet visited the memorial dedicated to the war they helped win.
"Oooh, it's fabulous. The workmanship that went into it ... it's just fantastic," said Al Kravitz, 84, of Sanborn. Kravitz was a Navy Seabee, repairing landing craft in Falmouth, England, which was a staging area for D-Day.
"It takes your breath away when you go to enter, especially the Wall of Stars. That really got to me, said Betty Beckwith, 86, of Lewiston. "All those people gave their lives for our country. It just sends chills up your spine."
During WWII, Beckwith, a member of the Women's Army Corps, served as a medical corpsman in hospitals at airfields in the Midwest.
Some of the veterans were already moved to tears at the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport, where before the 8:25 a.m. flight, a kick-off ceremony was held in the terminal lobby with Congressman Chris Lee and the 914th Airlift Wing Honor Guard.
Once in Washington, the veterans, accompanied by a team of volunteer chaperones, were taken first to their own memorial, then around the nation's capital to see others, including the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial and the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. They had breakfast on the plane, a boxed lunch at the World War II Memorial and a buffet dinner at a Washington restaurant before returning to Buffalo.
"These brave men -- and one woman -- in our group served our nation proudly when we needed them the most. We owe a great deal to their generation, and this trip is just one small way of saying ‘thank you,' " Maziarz said.
A longtime American Legion member here and in Florida, Beckwith had been involved with raising funds for the building of the Women's Memorial at Arlington Cemetery. She'd been to Washington before and seen some of the other memorials, but hadn't been there since the WWII Memorial was built in 2004.
She was thrilled by schoolchildren visiting the memorial who enthusiastically shook the veterans' hands and said "Thank you for being a veteran."
One fifth-grader from Maryland handed her a note and made her promise to respond.
"It's the first time in a long time, I've had tears in my eyes," said Beckwith, who noted that too many children today don't even know they should stand up straight and put their hands over their hearts when a flag passes by in a parade.
For Kravitz, who had never before been to Washington, the best part of the tour was the last -- the stop at Arlington Cemetery where he was overwhelmed by the vast number of grave markers.
"It seems that war takes so many lives, and it's really unnecessary," he said. "It just shook me up, that last part."
World War II veterans are extremely patriotic, but many don't talk much with their families about their experiences. The trip gave them not only acknowledgement for their service, but a chance to see the memorial with others who had been involved in WWII or been "over there."
In Beckwith's case, the trip caused a reunion. After her first husband died, she'd moved to Florida, remarried, and lost touch with her former brother-in-law. At an information meeting for the veterans prior to the Washington trip, she turned around and there, sitting behind her, was Ed Hunt, 92, also a Lewiston resident. Each had thought the other had passed on, she said.
"This trip is completely free for the veterans," Maziarz said before the group left. "They have given enough. We want them to have a good time and enjoy this memorable experience. All of them are in their 80s or 90s, and this might be the only chance they have to see the World War II Memorial. We want to make it the opportunity of a lifetime."
Enjoy it, they did, although it was a long day for the senior citizens, some who are handicapped. Kravitz, for example, got up about 2:30 a.m. to be ready to get to the airport in time, and didn't get home until about midnight. He's usually up at 6 a.m., but the day after the trip, he slept until 10 a.m. - "We were all tuckered out."
Maziarz said that special praise must be given to the Niagara USA Chamber of Commerce for its partnership in this event, to Health Systems Services for loaning wheelchairs, and to the staffs of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, Transportation Security Administration, and Southwest Airlines for their friendly cooperation.
Both Beckwith and Kravitz made a special point of thanking Maziarz for coordinating WNY Heroes and accompanying them on the trip.
"George is the perfect host. He helped all of us and knew everybody by name. You couldn't ask for anything that we didn't get," said Beckwith.
"He was hustling all the time. He was a worker," Kravitz said. "You can't say enough for Maziarz for what he did and what he has been doing for veterans."
Other Sentinel-area veterans selected for the trip were Nick D'Aloise of Ransomville and Bud Ward of Wilson.