COLUMBIA — Adrian Rogers was the last person approved to take part in the Central Missouri Honor Flight that returned to Columbia on the Fourth of July.
Rogers lives in Florida, but he flew to Columbia as soon as he found out he was able to join the 19th Honor Flight. His mother and sister lived in Columbia, and his sister got him hooked up to go on this flight.
Although Rogers, a Vietnam War veteran, has serious health issues, he has wanted to participate in the Honor Flight ever since his sister told him about the program.
"It was an opportunity that I could not pass up," Rogers said.
More than 900 people waited outside the Courtyard by Marriott hotel early Wednesday morning for the homecoming ceremony for Rogers and 63 other veterans as they returned from their Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.
The group of veterans arrived at the hotel shortly before 2 a.m. Wednesday. They had spent Tuesday touring war memorials in Washington.
More than 950 motorcycles led the bus carrying the veterans back to the hotel. As each member of the Honor Flight stepped off the bus, an announcer read his name, and the audience applauded and cheered.
Although it was well past midnight, children waved flags with their families, and older people stood with their walkers, holding banners and greeting boards to express their appreciation for the veterans.
"We drove over two hours to get here," said Nancy Platz, a friend of Rogers. "He does not know I am here. I cannot wait to surprise him and tell him we came here to be with him."
Platz is from a military family. Her husband is a Vietnam War veteran, and her father and father-in-law were World War II veterans. Her son has just returned from serving in Afghanistan.
But seeing the return of the Honor Flight was a first for Platz.
"This is new for me, and it means a lot to me and my family," Platz said.
When Platz arrived at the hotel at 10 p.m., there were already people setting up for the celebration. She gave out red, white and blue lollipops to people who were waiting to honor their heroes. She had also made a sign that read "Our hero — Adrian Rogers, we love you!"
At 1:50 a.m., the veterans arrived. Rogers, who is a wheelchair user, was escorted by his mother, Carol Rogers, off the bus. He saluted the crowd outside the bus, and a smile lit up his face when people cheered for him.
Still smiling, Rogers was approached by Platz, who surprised him with a hug.
"We thank Columbia for opening up their arms and doing this," Platz said. "This is the greatest thing I have ever taken part in."
Ralph Dobbs, who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima, stood in front of the hotel to greet the returning veterans. He wore his original World War II uniform and saluted each veteran as he stepped off the bus. He has been the official greeter for the Honor Flight since the the program's first flight in 2009.
"It is a celebration for freedom of America, and it is a special recognition of their service to the defense of our country," Dobbs said.
The Central Missouri Honor Flight is an all-volunteer organization, and since it began the program has flown 1,021 veterans to see the war memorials in Washington.
"It is just overwhelming," said John Rhein, a World War II veteran who returned on Wednesday. "Today reminds me that two of my two high school friends got killed in the World War II. I came to the Honor Flight to pay honor to them."
One of the volunteers, Katie Roberson, cried when she saw family members hug the veterans exiting the bus.
Roberson has volunteered to help set up the homecoming ceremony since 2010. She started volunteering after successfully encouraging her husband and father to go to the Honor Flight.
"It is my life to support them," Roberson said. "My whole family is in the military."
Roberson's husband, Jim Roberson, was a pilot for the Missouri National Guard for 20 years. Her eldest son was in the Navy for six years, and her middle son is currently in the Missouri National Guard.
"I want to teach the young ones that they need to put their hands over their heart when they see the veterans," Roberson said. "We want everybody in America to be proud of what they did."