Honor flight volunteer from Beaver Dam steps down

November 10, 2018 GMT

The Badger Honor Flight departed from Dane County Regional Airport last Saturday for its fifth and final flight of the year. The plane was filled with military veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars on their way to take a one-day tour of monuments in Washington, D.C.

Kelly McMillan of Beaver Dam was at the airport before dawn to greet the veterans as their journey began — something she has done for every honor flight since 2011.

McMillan, the Welcome Home coordinator of the Madison-based flights, said Saturday’s flight was her last serving in that capacity.

“I’ve been with Honor Flights for almost nine years and felt it was time to change duties. I’m not leaving the group, but opening the door for some new blood and new ideas,” she said. “Jaclyn Shelton and Sasha Fedorko are stepping up. They’ve been part of our welcome home team for a number of years and I know they’re going to do a perfect job.”

Badger Honor Flights began in 2010 to thank aging war veterans for their service, and McMillan, along with her sister Teri, was on board with the program almost from the beginning.

The sisters learned about the program from Mark Grams, who was the Dodge County veterans service officer. McMillan said Grams was working then with the Stars & Stripes Honor Flight based out of Milwaukee.

“We helped that group for a flight but then they found out we were from Beaver Dam and said we really should go to Badger because that was our county’s hub. So we transferred over to the Madison group, which was really brand new,” McMillan said. “In an instant, we just loved it. My sister and I were asked to take over the welcome home part of it and that’s where we found our niche.”

McMillan said she comes from a military family and felt the need to express her gratitude to our country’s veterans.

“My dad, brother, stepmother, both my grandpas and all five uncles served,” she said. “At one point, my dad and his three brothers were in the service at the same time. All vets deserve our thanks and honor flights is one phenomenal way to do that.”

As a Welcome Home coordinator, McMillan looks forward to getting everything ready for the veterans’ return to the airport. Her team sets chairs up, gets the music area together for a live band, puts together photo albums and much more.

“Teri stopped with honor flights a few years ago, but I just can’t give it all up,” McMillan said. “The joy I feel when I see that first veteran come down the escalator after the flight is amazing. Some are crying and some are smiling — each one has a story. I’ve welcomed back 34 flights and I’ve cried at every one.”

Diane Rabehl of Beaver Dam has volunteered alongside McMillan for eight years. She said McMillan told her to bring a box of tissues the first time she worked a Welcome Home celebration.

“We’ve went through many, many boxes over the years,” Rabehl said. “Kelly is inspiring. She is so conscious of everybody else and is humble. Many times, we have veterans who don’t want to go on an honor flight because they don’t think they deserve to. Whether they served stateside or overseas, she has a way of letting them know that they are appreciated and deserving.”

Last Saturday’s flight was meaningful for McMillan as her dad was recognized as a “Fallen Hero.” Eugene McMillan earned three Purple Hearts while serving and passed away in 2008.

“Veterans who we’ve lost or who aren’t able to go on a flight are honored in a special way. A photo of them is taken along to Washington, D.C., and then a volunteer will take a picture of the vet’s photo by the Wisconsin pillar at their monument,” McMillan said. “Back at the airport, each family then gets to walk through the crowd and experience so much love.”

McMillan said upwards of 5,000 people have shown up at the terminal to praise the veterans. “They line the lobby on both sides waving, cheering and clapping, holding up handmade signs. I have millions of good memories of the Welcome Home celebrations and every single one has been new and fun,” she said.

Rabehl said McMillan will continue fundraising on behalf of Badger Honor Flight, and for that, she is grateful.

“Kelly is so good at it. Her drive and passion reflects on all of us,” Rabehl said. “She’s a great motivator. I’m thankful for her friendship and I, along with anyone who has worked with her in the past, would do it again in a heartbeat.”

McMillan said it costs roughly $500 to send a veteran on an honor flight, but the area communities are extremely supportive of the organization that she finds fundraising somewhat easy.

“At our fundraisers, I tell everyone to come to the Welcome Home to see where their dollar goes, she said. “Ninety-six cents of every dollar goes back to the veterans. They all receive jackets, hats and shirts. There are some administrative costs, but there is no one on a payroll at Badger Honor Flight and we are extremely proud of that.

“There are thousands and thousands of hours dedicated by our volunteers and I’m going to brag about them because they are fantastic. It started with about six or eight people who decided to try out the program and at this point, I think we’re up to about 400 volunteers. We flew our 3,000th veteran Saturday. Whatever our veterans’ needs are, we hope to meet them — the day is on us.”