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Local author publishes book commemorating military veterans and Cedar Valley Honor Flights

Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier - 5/17/2024

May 17—LA PORTE CITY — Military veterans return home from a Cedar Valley Honor Flight feeling physically spent and emotionally exhausted, but somehow exhilarated.

They have just spent a whirlwind day with their brothers- and -sisters-in arms, shedding tears and sharing stories while visiting memorials built to honor their service across three wars — World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War — in Washington, D.C.

A new photo essay book written by Michael Whittlesey has been published this spring commemorating these once-in-a-lifetime excursions. Published by Palmerton Press, "The Cedar Valley Honor Flight Story: A Photographic Journey" has quickly reached keepsake status for veterans and their families.

As official photographers for Sullivan Hartough Davis Cedar Valley Honor Flights, Whittlesey, or his wife Jane, have been on 28 of the 29 honor flights since 2011. The 30th flight lifts off in June, and it's a sound bet that at least one half of the La Porte City couple will be aboard.

"We were overjoyed to be asked to go along as the camera crew. An honor flight is one of the best ways to spend a day, trying to tell the story and show the impact these flights have on the veterans, volunteers and organizers," said Whittlesey, former publisher and editor of The Progress Review, a La Porte City newspaper that ceased publication in 2020.

In the foreword, Whittlesey describes his view of the book: "The story of Cedar Valley Honor Flights is a photographic journey that illustrates how a grateful community honors the men and women who put country before themselves. It's a story about the importance of what it means to serve others."

Over 28 flights, Whittlesey has amassed more than 10,000 images and reams of video footage on the flights.

"It took me quite a while to go through the images. The challenge was choosing what photos best represented the honor flights, what photos best told the story. The photographs tell the story more powerfully than I ever could in the narrative. I've also included some light-hearted moments," he said.

"My wife is the better photographer. My first time, I focused on the memorials and monuments. When she went, she focused on the people. She taught me a valuable lesson. What makes these flights special are the people who are experiencing them."

Whittlesey's original book pitch to the local honor flight board of directors was met with enthusiastic support.

"I wanted them to be sold on the idea. I have profound respect for military veterans, and I consider it an honor to have this way to honor their service."

He created a rough draft and kept board members and volunteers apprised of progress throughout the project and subsequent publication. "I did it in-house because I didn't want the honor flight to incur any costs."

Whittlesey has provided commemorative DVDs to nearly 3,000 honor flight veterans spanning 28 flights. Additional DVDs are sold to the public and proceeds from sales support the flights.

Veteran Craig White, a local honor flight founder, praised Whittlesey's involvement.

"Michael and his wife have done a fantastic job, starting with getting the DVDs out to vets at no charge to us. They put a lot of money and effort into the program, and we need more people like that," he said.

Many veterans have never said a word or shared a story with loved ones about their wartime experiences. These flights have the power to move them to speak.

"The flights are cathartic," White said. "First, you tear up because it brings back memories, some good, some bad, and the good outweigh the bad. It opens old wounds, but quickly heals them."

The author discusses how flights began locally and interviews key figures and volunteers who continue to devote untold hours to the project. He also includes several columns he wrote for The Progress Review.

"The book's design is laid out in the typical honor flight experience so readers can see what the veterans see and feel what they feel," he explained.

Volunteer Linda Bergmann of Waterloo was so impressed that she's purchased multiple books as gifts. Bergmann, who is quoted in the book, was recruited to the flight crew 10 years ago, shortly after her May 2014 retirement. It has become her mission to help get flights off the ground.

"I know what it takes. I live it and do it every year, but to see it described in print — whoa! And veterans' feedback has been wonderful. They can't believe so much work goes into the flights. I'm amazed that we've taken over 3,000 veterans from our area to Washington, D.C. There are some days I don't believe it either," Bergman said.

At its heart, the book is a photographic essay about veterans' visits to the World War II, Korean and Vietnam War memorials. The wall is a particularly emotional stop, Whittlesey said. "Veterans are able to find the names of their buddies and find some peace after carrying the weight of those losses for so many years."

The tour includes visits to the Lincoln Memorial, Women's Memorial and U.S. Air Force Memorial. Veterans also watch the poignant changing of the guard ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. Receiving a hero's welcome on their return home is an emotional highlight of each honor flight.

Whittlesey and his wife strive to capture such meaningful moments. He is clear that the book is "not a yearbook. I didn't want it to have that flavor, but it was very important to show all the veterans who were honored by these special flights. So, I did a chapter of group photos to show who was present. Not everyone is accounted for, but I have the majority of them. With so many of these veterans gone now, it has become a keepsake for their families," he explained.

Proceeds from book sales will go toward future honor flights.

Hard-cover copies of "The Cedar Valley Honor Flight Story" are $44.95; soft-cover books are $29.95, available through amazon.com or Palmertown Press at palmertownpress.com/cedar-valley-honor-flight-story/. Each 166-page book features more than 500 full-color photographs. Book purchases include a free "Best of Cedar Valley Honor Flight" DVD with 120 minutes of video footage shot over a 13-year period.

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