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By Emily Bontrager
Thirty-one veterans took flight on the 68th Great River Honor Flight on October 19, 2023. Local veteran Johnny E. Keller, 76, was among the veterans on the flight, all who have served their country.
John Keller grew up in Colorado, and he graduated from Centennial High School in Pueblo.
“Back in those days they had what they called a college deferment from Vietnam. So, I went to college for two years and all my buddies had a new car, and I didn’t, so I dropped out of school to get enough money to buy a new car,” John explained.
John was planning on going back to school, but he lost his college deferment, and he was drafted into the service in 1968. He served in the Army during the Vietnam War and he completed his basic training at Fort Lewis in Washington.
“Then I went to Fort Riley, Kansas, AIT, for mechanized infantry,” John said.
“I was deployed two different years, 69 and 70.”
John was sent to Germany on each deployment. He was on a Sheridan tanker while he was serving, and he came back to the states after his last deployment was over.
John lives in Kahoka, Missouri with his wife Donna, who he met at Fort Riley.
“I met my wife at Fort Riley, Kansas as she was going to K-State, 53 years ago. We needed a job, so I went to work at Gardner Denver at La Grange, Missouri and that is how I ended up in the area,” John explained.
On Thursday, October 19, the veterans gathered together at John Wood Community College in Quincy, Illinois to embark on the 68th Great River Honor Flight.
John was one of the local veterans to go on the flight. Each veteran is allowed to have a guardian travel with them. The guardians pay for their own trip and are there to help assist the veterans. The Great River Honor Flight is completely free for all veterans.
John’s guardian on the trip was his brother Kenneth Keller. John is glad that his brother came and experienced the sites with him, and that Kenneth also took a lot of photos that day.
The trip began with the veterans boarding a bus and being transported to the St. Louis Airport.
“Then we flew to Baltimore and then we saw all the sites in Washington DC,” John recalled.
Keller and the other veterans were able to visit the Vietnam, Korea, and Lincoln Memorials. They saw the WWII Memorial, Air Force Memorial, Iwo Jima Memorial, and the Arlington National Cemetery. At the cemetery, the veterans witnessed the Changing of the Guard. Then they traveled to the Navy Memorial and were able to tour DC.
“Everything was good, and everything was in honor of the soldier. Probably the Lincoln Memorial stands out in my mind the most,” John said.
John was impressed with how well one of Great River Honor Flight Board of Directors, Barry Cheyne, organized the veterans and got them where they needed to go.
“He was spectacular. He was a Lieutenant Colonel and one of the highlights I really enjoyed was when we went to the Air Force Memorial and that is overlooking the Pentagon,” John said.
According to John, Barry was in the Pentagon when the airplane hit the building on 9/11 and Barry told the group what he experienced that day.
Ending their trip, the veterans flew out of Reagan National Airport and headed back to St. Louis Airport. The buses headed back to John Wood and along the way, Keller was impressed that there was a motorcycle escort.
“One of the little things that touched my heart probably the most was when we were coming back from the trip. We made a circle at Bowling Green and a bunch of motorcycles gave us a procession to John Wood. That was very touching,” John said.
Another aspect of the trip that John enjoyed was the mail call.
“Barry said, ‘Well, you know what? You people and youth in the service they didn’t have cell phones or the internet, they had mail call.’ He said, ‘We are going to have mail call now.’ It brought back so many memories,” John said.
“The whole deal was absolutely superb and the people that put it on actually made it that way. I can’t say enough for Barry and all of them were very good.”
John recommends that veterans go on the trip if they have not experienced it because he had a wonderful time.
“I was kind of down on being an American, but after I went there and all the people were so nice, I’m glad to be an American again,” John said.
Veterans and their guardians can fill out an application at www. greatriverhonorflight. com if they would like to go on one of the flights. Applications are accepted from World War II, Korean War veterans, Vietnam and others who have served between those conflicts. The Great River Honor Flight selects veterans on a first come first serve basis.
November 11 is Veterans Day, so be sure to thank veterans like John who have made the sacrifice to serve our great country.