Mequon — Ellie Huffman received an American history lesson like no other last weekend.
The eighth-grade student at University School of Milwaukee joined 88 World War II and Korean War veterans on a trip to Washington, D.C., Saturday through Stars and Stars Honor Flight. Huffman, of Mequon, and her history teacher Chuck Taft were asked to participate on the Honor Flight as a reward for Huffman winning the organization's essay contest.
For her essay, the Mequon girl chose to write about 2nd Lieutenant Robert Streckenbach Jr., of Green Bay, who went missing in action during World War II. His plane went down in New Guinea in 1943, but his remains were not recovered until 1984.
To do research for the project, Huffman contacted Streckenbach's sister in Green Bay and conducted an interview for her essay.
"I slowly built up knowledge about what happened to him, and I became more interested and emotionally invested," Huffman said. "I was able to contact his sister, and that was the moment when his story really came to life."
When Ellie's essay won the competition, she contacted Streckenbach's sister to let her know that she would use the Honor Flight as an opportunity to honor the fallen soldier with a eulogy.
The Honor Flight brought Ellie and her history teacher to Arlington National Cemetery to see the changing of the guard and the Tomb of the Unknown Solider.
At Arlington National Cemetery, Ellie gave a eulogy honoring Streckenbach's life, as well as the memories of other veterans who have given their lives in overseas conflict.
"It's one of those things that I'm probably going to carry with me forever," Huffman said of the experience.
Taft said the experience was equally memorable for those who heard her eloquent speech.
"A couple of the veterans commented that she is such an intelligent and enthusiastic young lady," Taft said of Ellie. "I think it might have given them more faith in the next generation."
Huffman and her teacher acted as "guardians" for two Wisconsin veterans: brothers Glenn Spaay, who served in Korea, and Eugene Spaay, who served in World War II. The Spaays accompanied them on the trip.
Ellie said her favorite part of the Honor Flight was the homecoming arrival at Mitchell International Airport. Hundreds of people with red, white and blue banners and signs welcomed the veterans to the airport, thanking them for their service all those years ago.
The entire experience instilled a sense of patriotism in Ellie that she said she will not soon forget.
"This project really made me realize that the soldiers you see on the news are truly our hometown heroes," she said. "They gave their life to the country, and because of them, we get to live as we do. It gives the word soldier or veteran a whole new meaning for me. They mean so much more to me now than they ever did before."
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