Earlier this fall, more than 50 Southern Illinois heroes departed from Veterans Airport in Marion bound for Washington, D.C. The early-morning flight — packed with local veterans, family chaperones and dedicated volunteers — was organized by Veterans Honor Flight of Southern Illinois, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing all veterans who apply with a trip to their nation’s capital to visit memorials honoring their service and sacrifice.

The visit is free to the veterans, with travel sponsored by contributions from local veterans organizations, businesses small and large, schools, family, friends, and neighbors. If you don’t know much about it, I would strongly encourage you to visit veteranshonorflight.org to learn more.

Upon their landing in Washington, I had the distinct privilege of welcoming these veterans to the National Mall. Making the moment even more special for me, my father, Gene, was on the flight. It’s a moment I will never forget as long as I live.

Veterans Day is a special time of year, when our nation comes together in remembrance of the brave men and women who answered the call of service to our nation. Dating back its origins to the end of World War I, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month forever marked the crossroads of history.

It’s not only a day to show appreciation for those who served and are still with us, but also to honor the legacies of the fallen.

This summer, the remains of 2nd Lt. Maax Curtis Hammer Jr. were returned to Southern Illinois. 2nd Lt. Hammer died when his plane crashed in what was then Burma in 1941. He was part of the Flying Tigers, a group of volunteer pilots who helped the British and Chinese defend against Imperial Japan.

With a heavy hearts, his family and community welcomed Maax home to Carbondale via dignified transport from Hawaii, where he had been buried for 67 years in a grave marked "Unknown."

Americans owe a debt of gratitude to our nation’s bravest individuals — those who have served and given their lives in defense of freedom and liberty. And for those currently serving overseas, it is humbling to recognize that our nation is protected by the greatest fighting force the world has ever seen.

As Veterans Day approached this year, I couldn’t help but think of the warm autumn day when the Southern Illinois Honor Flight came to Washington. There were a lot of hugs, handshakes, and thank you’s shared that day.

The good news is you don’t have to go to Washington to thank a veteran.

To the 55,000 in Illinois’ 12th Congressional District and 22 million nationwide, I say thank you. Let us all take some time to thank our veterans this weekend. And when the weekend is over, let’s continue the fight to ensure they receive the care and support they deserve.

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