"It's important as a service member and a veteran to know just what is it that you're fighting for," said Army veteran James Owens, on the trip with his wife, servicewoman Juanita Owens. "It's fighting to protect our values, our principles, our morals, and what our founding fathers began, to not see it end."
Following an early morning Southwest Airlines flight, the group of 15 vets, plus their guests, bused to their first opportunity to broaden their understanding of the roots of their service. It came at the National Mall, home of permanent tributes to presidents and heroes.
For Jason Morgan, who spent 10 years in the Air Force, an enormous countenance made an impression -- that of 16th president Abraham Lincoln as depicted at the Lincoln Memorial.
"You see it on TV in different things and movies, but it doesn't even compare to see that in person. I just can't imagine all the marble that it took to build that place," he said. "I think it was a very fitting monument for great president. It was really incredible."
"This opportunity was an outstanding experience for my son who is eleven years old and has never been to Washington D.C.," said Army Reserve captain Shad Lancaster. "The whole time he wanted to see the Lincoln Memorial. And he related that back to the penny and how you can see Lincoln on the back of the penny."
Lancaster had visited the Capitol many times. On this trip, he got to share the experience with his son, Tanner.
"I told him this was going to be an experience he'll remember for the rest of his life."
As one soldier walked with his son, another thought of his grandfather.
"I really liked the World War II Memorial. My grandfather, who is still alive today, is a veteran from World War II. So, that was nice to kind of honor him through that memorial," said Air Force pilot Don Rolleg, whose wife serves in the U.S. Army. "It hit home real hard."
All of the servicemen and women had gotten to attend a game in Arlington during the summer, many meeting the program's spokesman and sponsor, right-handed pitcher Scott Feldman. As the trip continued through more of the capitol's attractions, they seemed to feel some of the same gratitude civilians like Feldman had felt for them in beginning the program. Rolleg explained.
"Just being able to be recognized as a veteran and for someone to take us on a trip like this has been outstanding. As people in the military, we don't really ask for anything in return. We just sign that dotted line and do what we're told," he said. "It's great that the Texas Rangers and Southwest Airlines have shown this much appreciation toward us in giving us this trip."
One trip participant did wear a long face. Morgan's service dog Napal, a four-year-old black Labrador retriever, managed to fall asleep at both the U.S. Capitol and the White House. Luckily, the non-canines in the bunch could appreciate the significance of the places they visited.
"I've always been interested in going to the White House ever since I was little. It's always been a dream to go," Owens said. "So when we found out that the White House tour was granted, we were just completely ecstatic. I told my wife, 'This is amazing.' We get to go somewhere that the greatest men in the world have made decisions for our country ... That we were able to be there and do that, it just really instilled some pride into knowing just what it really stands for."
Napal did actually seem to enjoy his sojourn, if one can judge such a thing by frequency of tail-wagging and the generously dispensed head rubs he received from members of the traveling party. The extensively trained Lab also successfully opened the doors to the Capitol.
Once inside, the travelers studied under Clio, the Muse of History -- her statue stands in the National Statuary Hall in the former House of Representatives chamber. They learned from Kevin Hubbard, Legislative Correspondent with Texas Congressman Pete Sessions, about the painting depicting George Washington's resignation of his commission as general. The event signified that the military in the United States would respect civilian authority. The freedoms conferred by such an arrangement motivated many of the soldiers in the Faces of Freedom group.
They expressed such sentiments most clearly when reflecting on their experiences at Arlington National Cemetery.
"I think it was a very reverent place," said Morgan as he sat near the Tomb of the Unknowns. "Seeing rows and rows and rows of people that died for our freedom. It just made you feel really grateful for all the people [and] everything they sacrificed."
Each of the veterans had earned selection for the program based on having shown "tremendous courage, strength, and patriotism in the line of duty, past or present." Rolleg's line of duty has often included serving other soldiers who had done the same, but would never have their own opportunities to participate in such a program. At the cemetery, his thoughts turned to them.
"As part of my job flying C-130s, We help the repatriation of the fallen angels, the guys who give the ultimate sacrifice," Rolleg said. "They're loaded up on our airplanes draped in coffins and we help bring them home. And it's cool to see their final resting place. And for me, on my will, it's actually my final resting place, hopefully later on down the road. But it's nice to see how much respect is put into a place like that."
James Owens explained why such respect has meaning for those current and former members of the Armed Forces who visit.
"They're not around to see where we are today," he said. "But just knowing that the flag still stands for freedom and that's what we have and it's because of men like that we have what we have today, those who continue to serve today serve the same purpose. Knowing that we want our country to remain the great American dream -- that's what it's all about."
On Veterans Day, the United States honors its Faces of Freedom. Some of those faces one can see, others one no longer can. But all can be recognized.