After an almost two-year hiatus, Honor Flight Chicago returned to Washington, D.C., with a local veteran on board the first flight.

The program takes veterans on a day trip to the nation’s capital to tour monuments and see the sights as a thank you for their service.

On Aug. 18, Honor Flight Chicago was the first to take flight after the pandemic-related hiatus. After five years, Ed Rafalski, of Manteno, finally had a seat on that flight.

“The whole day was overwhelming. I’m still walking on air over it,” he said.

Rafalski is no stranger to the skies as he served in the Air Force from 1968 to 1972. During that time, he served in the Vietnam War.

“I volunteered to go to Vietnam,” he said, sharing that he went to Vietnam on Jan. 4, 1970 and returned exactly one year later.

Growing up in Calumet City, Rafalski enlisted at age 17 as he knew the Air Force would provide him with an education and the tools to learn a trade. With this, he was able to have a long career as a mechanic with Bauer Buick in Harvey.

Eventually making his way south to Manteno, Ed is currently active in the Manteno American Legion and serves on its board. He submitted for Honor Flight in 2016 and has been on the waitlist since.

He was initially scheduled for the flight in 2020, but that was put on hold due to COVID-19. Honor Flight Chicago provided a lawn sign for Rafalski to place outside of his home.

As vaccinations started being doled out, the Air Force veteran received word that he would be flying in 2021. More than ever, safety was the No. 1 priority of the program.

“I got all new paperwork and, if you didn’t have your shots, they wouldn’t even talk to you,” he said.

The first part of the process was a sit-down interview with an Honor Flight volunteer — who happened to be a Manteno resident. She took down Rafalski’s story which was included in an online profile as part of the program’s website.

Royalty for a day

The day of the flight, a friend of Rafalski picked him up at 1:30 a.m. to bring him to Midway Airport. Because D.C. is an hour ahead, the program schedules early flights to make the most of the day.

After going through security, volunteers welcomed the group of 112 veterans — including three World War II veterans — with a breakfast spread before boarding the plane.

“They were constantly feeding us,” said Rafalski, who said they provided three full meals for the day. “They wanted to cater to [us].”

The group flew into Alexander, Va., and was greeted by a band upon arrival. There, all of the veterans met their escorts for the day who would show them around the capital.

Rafalski’s escort was a D.C. resident, which provided extra insight to the day’s tours. Additionally, the group was surrounded all day long by active-duty military.

The first stop was the Marine Corps Memorial where the Marines displayed a silent drill. Between this and the next stop to the World War II Memorial, a heavy storm rolled in.

“When we got to the WWII Memorial, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and this intense sun came out,” he recalled, adding that they took a group photo and sang the national anthem.

Next, they went to the Lincoln Memorial and then walked to the Vietnam Wall, where The Three Soldiers statue and the Nurses Statue are located.

“I learned that if there was a diamond next to the name, the remains were never recovered,” Rafalski said of the Vietnam Wall. “If there was a cross next to the name, that means the remains were returned to the family.”

An emotional journey

This part of the day brought about emotions for Rafalski, who took time to silently remember his fallen comrades.

“I couldn’t help it, I was crying,” he said.

After lunch and museum tours, the group headed back to the airport where they were greeted with a reception. During the flight home, volunteers provided the veterans with the surprise “mail call” as family and friends were invited to write letters to their veterans.

Rafalski’s daughter, Maryellen Raimondi, had put together a package of letters from school children and local politicians. Rafalski is currently working on sending “thank yous” to all who wrote to him.

The final surprise of the day came when they returned to Midway and were greeted with another reception. The veterans got to do something of a parade around baggage claim, where friends and family had gathered with signs of celebration.

Rafalski said that sailors from the Great Lakes were in attendance, as well as current members of the Navy. His daughter was there with a sign, and his friends providing him with transportation were part of the “welcome home” flag line.

Still elated by the experience, Rafalski encourages fellow veterans who haven’t had the experience to sign up for Honor Flight.

“I’m so glad I went,” he said. “Just sign up, you earned it.”

For more information on Honor Flight Chicago and to read Ed Rafalski’s profile, go to honorflightchicago.org/edmund-rafalski-jr/.