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HONOR FLIGHT: Honoring a Man Who Was There in Spirit

WASHINGTON, DC – When a charter jet arrived in Moline Thursday night, almost 100 Vietnam veterans heard the words they waited so long to hear.

"On behalf of the President and the Congress, I'd like to thank you for your service to Vietnam and welcome you home," said an active duty serviceman shortly after the flight landed at the Quad City international Airport.

Just outside the plane, some two thousand people waited to welcome these veterans back home.

But first off the plane was the spirit of a Quad City teenager.

An American flag was handed over to an active duty serviceman, embraced, and then escorted through the terminal.    And two thousand people were there when the flag received the honor it deserved and was presented to a very proud mother: Frances Pena.

"He always had that smile on his face, all the time," she said.  "Never failed."

Her son was Jesse Joseph Pena, a 19 year old Navy hospitalman.   It was in 1970 when the family was stunned after being told Pena was killed in an ambush in the Quang Nam province in Vietnam.

"I was at a friend's house," said John Pena about hearing the news of his cousin's death.

In so many ways, it was an emotional day for all of those who were on the Honor Flight.

In Washington, outside the Lincoln Memorial, each of the veterans stood proudly or sat in wheelchairs united in the memories of a war that started 50 years ago.

And on those steps, Jesse Joseph Pena found the comrades he never met.

"We are carrying the flag for Jesse Joseph Pena from Davenport, Iowa," announced Honor Flight deputy director Michael Haney before the veterans at the memorial.

"It's also the opportunity to remember those who passed before and who did not return home."

But on this day, fallen Navy hospitalman Jesse Pena did come home.  His flag laid before the panel where his name is inscribed.  It's the first time the "Honor Flight" has done that for a person who served in Vietnam.

"It's a big deal," said Haney.

And was an even bigger deal nine hours later when the flag was given to the Pena family, giving them a chance to remember the oldest of ten children who will never be forgotten.

"He was a great person," said his cousin John.

"Everybody loved him.  Biggest smile on his face."