The Vikings recently partnered with Hy-Vee to send five veterans to Washington, D.C. for a âVeterans Voyage.â The group took in the sights and sounds of the nationâs capital before watching Minnesotaâs 38-30 win on Sunday.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was the surprise, and the trip, of a lifetime for five Minnesota-based veterans.
It also was a weekend filled with a myriad of emotions, as a group of mostly strangers bonded together over their service to their country and the celebration of their sacrifices.
The Vikings recently partnered with Hy-Vee to send the five veterans to Washington, D.C. for a "Veterans Voyage." The group took in the sights and sounds of the nation's capital before watching Minnesota's 38-30 win on Sunday.
"It's just been a completely cool weekend," said veteran Shannon Larsen. "It's hard to explain. You can't put it into words because it's been so humbling.
"We're just soaking it all in," Larsen added. "Maybe next week we'll digest it."
Larsen served in the U.S. Army in Operation Desert Storm. She met her husband, Mark, who was also on the trip, in the military.
Army veteran Rick Greer, who served in the Vietnam War, made his first trip to the nation's capital. Daniel Sebo of the Army National Guard and Steven Lovan of the Air National Guard also went to Washington D.C.
Tiffany Ziemer of the U.S. Army Reserves also went along with her husband, Greg, who is currently a soldier in the Army.
The fun began Friday morning when the veterans showed up to Hy-Vee in Eagan for what the group thought was a "Salute to Service" breakfast.
And while there was food, there was also a gift box for each of the five veterans.
Vikings legend Paul Krause soon arrived to thank the group for their service and deliver a shocking message: they were all flying to Washington, D.C., to celebrate Veterans Day weekend.
The trip would include sightseeing, private tours and the Vikings game. But first the veterans had to get over the disbelief of the surprise trip.
"I am completely shocked right now. I'm very overwhelmed," Ziemer said shortly after the announcement. "When we opened the box to see what the whole trip was going to be — I didn't know it was a trip, I thought it was breakfast. It's amazing.
"It's flattering because you don't think of yourself as different from anybody else that's just walking down the street," Ziemer later added. "To be recognized for what you've done, what you've experienced (and) what you've gone through, it's overwhelming."
Shannon Larsen said: "We went to breakfast thinking it would just be fun. Then they dropped the bomb and said, 'You're going to D.C.' I didn't have a clue. I seriously had to pick up my jaw from the floor and regroup."
Added Lovan: "I was not expecting this. I was happy with just the breakfast, let alone this."
Krause, who played for both Minnesota and Washington in his 16-year career, said he jumped at the chance to surprise the group.
"My reaction was, 'Let's go!' I like what the military has done for us," Krause said. "It's really important for me to meet the military guys and gals because they give their life for us and protect our country. I am so thankful for them to be there."
The veterans' spouses were in on the trip, as they had secretly packed a weekend bag and made sure schedules were cleared.
"My Army training came in. [Shannon] didn't have a clue," Mark Larsen said with a laugh. "The hardest part was that I was excited for her because I knew what a big deal it would be for her.
"The hardest part was waiting because it was like Christmas," he added. "I had been keeping a secret for about a month. She had no clue whatsoever."
The group was whisked to the airport by limo.
An event-filled Saturday began bright and early as they attended a special Veterans Day event at Arlington National Cemetery. The group saw the Changing of the Guard of the Tomb of the Unknowns and listened to remarks by Vice President Mike Pence.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing … it's absolutely amazing," Sebo said of the ceremony.
The group later received a private tour of the United States Capitol building before the night was capped off by a moonlight tour of various monuments, including the National World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
It was the latter monument that produced the most poignant moment of the trip.
Greer had never seen the wall dedicated to the honor and sacrifice of the war he bravely fought in.
When the group approached the wall, they stepped back and allowed Greer to be alone with his thoughts and emotions.
Greer said a fellow Vietnam veteran gave him a pin to commemorate 50 years since his start of service. The 70-year-old joined the military when he was 20 years old.
"I'll never forget that. I didn't know him from Adam, but a very nice man," Greer said. "A lot of good things will stick in your mind forever. They really will. He shook my hand and said, 'Welcome home.' It really meant a lot.
"It breaks my heart to see all the names up there," Greer added. "I think a lot about it … my name could have been up there, you know?"
Added Larsen: "He was really reflecting on his friends that he lost when he was there."
Brett Taber, the Vikings Executive Director of Social Impact, said the organization was proud to give back to a select group of veterans for their service.
"In partnership with Hy-Vee, the Veterans Voyage was one way that we could give back to the brave men, women, and their families that have given so much in defense of our freedoms," Taber said. "We hope these veterans were able to feel the recognition they deserve from a grateful community and cherish the monuments in Washington they fought to defend."
As the veterans gathered on the sideline prior to the Vikings fifth straight victory, the group reflected on what the weekend meant to them.
"It's just a neat day to be here," Larsen said on the sidelines of FedExField. "It's really cool to be part of this puzzle. Every piece of the puzzle counts in the military, no matter if you had a big job or a small job. You can't do the whole puzzle without that piece."
Those on the Veterans Voyage ranged from 28 to 70 years old. Greer, the elder statesman of the group eloquently summed up a trip the group will cherish forever.
"It has been the best Veterans Day I've ever had in 50 years," Greer said, his voice filled with emotion. "I was totally surprised when [I learned of the trip].
"It's been a great time. A lot of tears … a lot of happy tears, sad tears. A lot of laughter, a lot of hugs," Greer added. "I felt like I was with one big, happy family. It was phenomenal."