Lyle Onstad stands with his grandfather Dave Covert at the Montana
pillar of the World War II Memorial.
By Kay Johnson
It was a trip worth taking.
With a 50-year span between the two men, a shared appreciation for veterans, stemming in large part from each of their military experiences, grandson Lyle Onstad and 90-year-old WWII veteran Dave Covert had nothing but praises for the Big Sky Honor Flight program.
“I’m talking to everyone about it,” Onstad said. “They’re doing a tremendous job.”
As a family practitioner based in Great Falls, Onstad, who comes in contact with veterans and their families through his medical practice, said he’s encouraging veterans to take part in the program and others to support it.
“There’s an urgency to this mission,” Onstad said, noting the men on their flight were between the ages of 87 and 96. “They just aren’t going to be here (much longer).”
Onstad accompanied his grandfather on the sixth flight of the program. The pair flew out of Billings Sunday morning and returned from Washington D.C. Monday evening.
It was an exhaustive trip. One that entailed visits to six memorials, including Lincoln, Vietnam, Korean and the WWII monuments, along with an evening banquet and a stop at Arlington National Cemetery, where the 87 veterans and those accompanying them were given a place of honor to view the Changing of the Guard.
But beyond viewing the monuments commemorating the nation’s veterans, the two men agreed it was the gratitude shown by strangers that touched them the most.
“It was really emotional,” Onstad said as he described the hundreds of people lined up to greet the veterans at the Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. From teenagers, middle aged, to the elderly, he estimated 600 plus individuals volunteered their time to come and greet the men.
“They were genuinely warm, kind and thankful,” Onstad said, describing those greeting the men. It clearly reached the veterans on a level most hadn’t anticipated. “Most of these guys couldn’t talk afterwards.”
Deciding to go
A conversation earlier this spring with friends spurred Onstad to research the Big Sky Honor Flight — a program he knew little about. The non-profit organization is dedicated to providing WW II veterans with a trip to Washington D.C. to visit their memorial at no cost. The state program is a member of the national Honor Flight Network, which began in 2005. So far, at the conclusion of the sixth trip, the Big Sky Honor Flight has flown 518 veterans from Montana.
Onstad’s research led to a conversation with his grandfather.
“You ought to think about going,” Onstad recalled sharing with his grandfather.
Covert had heard of the program, but was more than hesitant about going.
“It was his idea,” Covert recalled of their conversation. “He called me up and said, ‘I think we should go grandpa.’ ”
A commonality shared
As a young person Onstad recalls little being shared of his grandfather’s military experience. Covert followed the example of many men of that era, Onstad said — returning home, putting their duffle bags in their closets, WW II veterans then carried on with their lives.
It wasn’t until Covert wrote an account of his life ten years ago, that he and others in the family became more familiar with details of his grandfather’s military service. The memoir was written around the time Onstad was serving in the US Army from 1998-2005, which included a deployment in 2003 to Kuwait and Iraq where he served with the 10th Combat Support Hospital and 101st Airborne Division.
The experience, though in Onstad’s estimation was minimal compared with his grandfather’s, gave the two men a deeper camaraderie. The trip to D.C. only heightened those sentiments.
“I’d rate it as one of the high points,” Onstad said of a lifetime filled with fond memories of his grandfather.
The Combat Infantryman Badge is one of many
medals Covert was awarded for his service in the U.S.
Army during WW II from 1943-46. While in the service he
served as a staff sergeant and squad leader with the 5th
Combat Division in France and Belgium. The CIB is given to those
who have been in combat.
As their flight returning to Billings was drawing to a close, a familiar phrase was called out — one only war-weary military service men and women, far from home, could appreciate.
It’s a time designated to receiving letters from home and to the surprise of veterans taking part in the sixth Big Sky Honor Flight was reenacted for the trip.
Covert received 30 plus letters and cards from family and friends.
“I never got that much mail when I was in the army,” he said. “Well, I probably did, but …” he acknowledged with a smile.
Trip worth taking
Though exhausting, even for a man in his early 40s, the trip, filled with several unexpected emotional moments, was well worth it, according to both men.
“It was so well organized. It just went like clockwork,” Covert said, describing the stops made to each monument.
A medical staff was on a hand throughout the trip and special care was given to those veterans in need of more medical attention.
More than just a trip to view war memorials, Onstad said, “It hit on an emotional level that was just more significant than that.”
“I think they have really honored the WW II veterans.”