One hundred and thirty-five female military veterans, and a woman who famously played one on TV, geared up Sunday for a whirlwind “Flight of Honor” from Omaha to Washington, D.C.
It’s hard to tell who was more excited.
“It’s an honor,” said actress Loretta Swit, who played Army nurse Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in the TV series “M*A*S*H” from 1972 to 1983. “I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to be here with you. ... You lived the real thing. You’re the real deal.”
Bill and Evonne Williams, who since 2008 have flown more than 3,500 Nebraska veterans to Washington to see the patriotic monuments, brought in Swit to speak during Sunday’s preflight dinner. The flights are the work of their nonprofit, Patriotic Productions.
More than 700 people attended, including Gov. Pete Ricketts and his wife, Susanne Shore (who is serving as an escort on the trip); Rep. Don Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general; and former Rep. and Mayor Hal Daub.
During the event, a female veteran of each major conflict since World War II walked up the center aisle to stand on the stage and was saluted by a male veteran of the same war. Edith Peterson, 98, of Council Bluffs drew a standing ovation when she was pushed to the front in her wheelchair and received her salute. A nurse in World War II, she will be the oldest veteran on the flight.
Each veteran also received a handmade Quilt of Valor in honor of her service. More than 350 volunteers sewed the quilts.
The actress, who lives in New York, volunteered to rise early with the veterans Monday for a 4:30 a.m. flight out of Eppley Airfield. She’ll spend the morning with them as they visit the Marine Corps Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery in the first half of the day. In the afternoon, the veterans will visit the Lincoln, World War II, Korean War and Vietnam Memorials. Then they’ll climb aboard their chartered Sun Country 737 for the flight home.
Nebraska veteran Sandra Muller is excited, too. She served nine years in the Army with a transportation company, including a 2006-07 deployment to Iraq.
“It’s a way to spend time with the sisterhood of the arms,” said Muller, 43, as she waited in line with her service dog, Emma, to meet Swit in person. She said Emma will make the trip to Washington. The dog helps her cope with the aftereffects of her deployment, including anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
Meeting Swit is a dream come true, too. Muller said Swit’s character was a role model to her growing up. She liked how assertive and competent Maj. Houlihan was.
“She was military, and disciplined, but she had a set of lungs on her,” Muller said.
JaNae Johnson, 42, of Hastings said she signed up for the trip in part as a tribute to two friends from her Air Force security forces unit who died during her tour in Iraq. She was a staff sergeant when she completed her six-year hitch in 2007.
She’s grateful that the trip is bringing attention to women who served their country.
“It lets people know: If they’re taking 135 women veterans to Washington, there must be a lot of us in the service,” Johnson said.
Maj. Jennifer Leavitt, 45, of Papillion, an Air Force military intelligence officer with the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base, said she has been looking forward to meeting military women from earlier generations.
“These women laid the foundation for all of us,” Leavitt said. “We’re really standing on their shoulders.”
She was especially happy to learn that Swit would be appearing.
“When I became a major, my first words were, ‘Now I’m the same rank as Maj. Houlihan!’ ” Leavitt said. “We didn’t have many examples (of military women). But she was good at her job, and feisty.”
At the preflight dinner, Swit, 80, discussed her charity, SwitHeart’s Animal Alliance, which benefits animals in need. Lately, she said, it has focused on bringing home military working dogs together with their handlers.
“I’m all for a round trip with a battle buddy,” Swit said.
She also talked about the evolution of her character during the show’s 11-year run. The half-hour comedy/drama was one of the most popular television shows of all time and still is seen daily in reruns.
She said she had met with the show’s producers to talk about the role after returning from filming a guest part in the original version of “Hawaii Five-0.”
She hadn’t seen the M*A*S*H movie or read a script but later learned she had beaten out more than 200 actresses for the role.
Swit credited excellent writers who helped her mold the character as brash, brassy, assertive and highly competent.
“She was the best damn head nurse in Korea,” Swit said. “She was very complicated, very complex, very interesting — and very funny.”
For the first couple years of the show, the character was tied up in an illicit, slapstick romance with Maj. Frank Burns, who played a silly and incompetent doctor at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.
Swit said she came up with the idea of sending her to Tokyo for R&R, where she fell in love with, and married, a higher-ranking officer whom she later divorced.
“We developed this full-blown character,” Swit said. “They stopped calling her ‘Hot Lips’ because she was more than just one part of her anatomy.”
She said the cast built a close bond.
The show’s final episode, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” — viewed by 106 million people, still the most ever to watch a scripted TV show — was as emotional for the cast as it was for viewers.
“It was an extraordinary moment,” Swit said. “We were like family. We’re still family.”
She said she spoke with Jamie Farr, who played the cross-dressing Cpl. Klinger, and Mike Farrell, who portrayed Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt, as recently as Saturday.
Swit said is humbled by the letters she still receives from women who were inspired by her character.
“I have women out there who I may never know who became Army nurses because of Margaret Houlihan,” Swit said.
On this trip, Swit said she wants to listen and hear the stories of the Nebraska women who lived the reality that she portrayed on TV. She’s especially impressed that all of them — every one — volunteered to serve in war zones.
I want to hear about their experiences, where they’ve been, what they’ve done,” Swit said. “They’ve been through hell you can’t begin to wrap your brain around,” she said.
The public is invited to greet the veterans at Eppley Airfield on Monday night. They are scheduled to return at 8:35 p.m.