They fought a war that engulfed the entire world. They sacrificed their youth, their innocence and sometimes much more.
And when they came home from places like Normandy and Midway, the Ardennes Forest and Iwo Jima, most simply returned to their civilian lives, they married, raised families and endeavored to leave the hardships and memories of World War II behind.
But this weekend, thanks to Honor Flight Kern County, more than 20 World War II veterans from Bakersfield and nearby communities traveled to Washington, D.C. to commemorate, even to consecrate, a moment in American history when they and millions like them came together to save civilization from those bent on its destruction.
For these aging warriors -- the youngest is 84, the eldest 101 -- it was a journey not just of distance and miles, but of time and memory.
"It brings me closure," 86-year-old Navy veteran James Lee said of the group's visit Saturday to the World War II Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and several other historic locations.
Lee, who served aboard a mine sweeper in the Pacific during World War II, looked around at the row upon row of bleached-white headstones at Arlington, and holding his hand to his chest, seemed to be saying that's where he felt it most deeply.
So many dead, he said, clearly moved by the quiet, respectful atmosphere at the historic cemetery. "I didn't realize it was so large."
Thanks to tax-deductible donations from the community and a small army of volunteers, the three-day trip was cost-free for the veterans, who represented just about every branch of the military. Considering the age and relative frailty of the men, volunteer "guardians" came along on the trip to assist and watch over the vets.
A Californian reporter also accompanied the group throughout the flights and during Saturday's whirlwind tour, which also included the Vietnam Wall, the Korean War Memorial, the Marine Corps Memorial, the Air Force and Navy memorials -- and a surprise VIP tour of the U.S. Capitol building.
Lori Crown, one of the volunteers who helped organize Kern's first Honor Flight, said there are already 65 more veterans on the waiting list for the next flight, with more expected.
"We'd like to get 100 veterans on the next flight," Crown said. "But that charter flight will cost $102,000."
And that doesn't count food and lodging.
Louis Gill, a volunteer member of Honor Flight Kern County's board of directors, said there are scores of veterans in the community "waiting and hoping that their turn will come."
He said it is nothing less than a "call to action" for Kern County.
"These guys answered the call," he said of our military veterans. "The question is, will we answer it for them."
'Thank you for your service'
If the 21 local veterans thought they would be treated like typical tourists on this weekend trip, they were soon shown otherwise. Everywhere they went, people spontaneously stopped to shake their hands and say, "Thank you for your service."
Teenage girls and their mothers, tattooed bikers, younger veterans, people of all ages and races were drawn to them as if each were a medal winner, a hero, a celebrity.
Cathy Gorton, her partner, Laura Green and their 8-year-old daughter, Elise Green, all of Portland, Ore., posed for pictures with some local veterans -- and treated them with the greatest respect, admiration and affection.
It's important, the parents said, to show Elise that the freedoms we often take for granted have been hard-won by those willing to place themselves in harm's way for the greater good.
"She does all the things little girls can do," Laura Green said of her daughter. "But we want her to know it all does come with a price."
Vietnam: The Wall
Early Saturday morning, as the veterans walked and rolled in wheelchairs down the sloping path toward the Vietnam Wall, they were met by Jeremy Staat and Wesley Leon-Barrientos, Iraq war veterans who are just a day away from officially wrapping up their 100-day Wall-to-Wall bicycle tour -- from the Wall of Valor in Bakersfield to the Vietnam Wall.
The bike journey was intended to raise awareness of the skyrocketing suicide rate among veterans, as well as other issues and challenges many veterans face. It was also intended to help tear down generational divides that have sometimes existed between military vets.
But watching the younger veterans as they greeted and spoke with their older brothers in arms, it seemed as if a divide never existed.
Leon-Barrientos, who lost both legs in an explosion in Iraq, said he considered each of the older veterans heroes.
"We're following in your footsteps," he told the veterans. "It's an honor to be here with you."
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, met the group at the World War II Memorial, which was finished in 2004, 59 years after the end of World War II. Most of the veterans had never had the chance to visit the memorial.
McCarthy said he just wanted to thank the men personally for their service. And did he ever.
Once back on the bus, the driver headed for the Capitol building, the very center of Washington's wheel-and-spoke grid. Soon a Capitol Police car with lights flashing led the bus onto the Capitol grounds, right next to the members' entrance. From there, the entire group was led through security and into McCarthy's offices, where his staff had lunch waiting.
McCarthy spoke about the fascinating history of the building, and led a tour to the floor of the House chambers, a peek in Speaker of the House John Boehner's office complex, and finally out onto the Speaker's Balcony, with it's terrific view of the Washington Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue.
The veterans and their guardians were simply agog, immersed in the magic and history of the building.
Later, as McCarthy walked down a marble staircase, worn by years of use, he smiled.
"I like feeling those grooves on the stairs," he said. "It makes me wonder who has walked here before me."
The trip triggered memories in the hearts of every veteran, some military-based, others deeply personal.
Vietnam veteran Ed Gaede Jr., who was there as a guardian for his father, World War II veteran Ed Gaede Sr., traced the names of three high school friends whose names are on the Vietnam Wall.
"You always feel like, it should've been me, not them," the younger Gaede said.
But he felt better, he said, after having touched those engraved names.
"It's like going to somebody's funeral," he said. "Giving honor for the sacrifice they made."
Two of the men were at the Battle of the Bulge when the Allies were cut off by seven German Panzer Divisions. Others saw action on the high seas. And still others never had a bullet fired at them in anger.
Ninety-one-year-old veteran John George Grenek said his claim to fame was bringing back a beautiful British war bride.
"When I was chosen for this Honor Flight, my wife cried, she really cried," Grenek said, tears welling in his own eyes.
"It was so great."