When Anthony Repeta arrived at Midway Airport in the early hours of May 11, 2016, he didn’t feel all that special. He was just a “sleepy old Navy veteran” on his way to Washington, D.C.

As he sat alongside roughly 100 other veterans at their flight gate, Repeta was kept awake by a trio performing as the Andrews sisters. The music brought back memories. Repeta was in active duty during the Korean War from 1954-56. He never saw combat, so he’s always had mixed feelings about being called a hero.

“I was a [serviceman] during the Korean War, but I didn’t come back with any wounds,” Repeta said. “I crossed the Atlantic six times in an escort carrier carrying planes over to the NATO countries.”

The 81-year-old spent the next few hours getting to know his Honor Flight Chicago Guardian — a petty officer first class — as they flew to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorials built to honor the service of men like Repeta. He had visited the Korean War Memorial before, but seeing the metal poncho-clad soldiers standing resolute amidst the day’s rain struck a powerful chord for Repeta. He could almost see the men trudging through South Korea’s countryside as he looked at the memorial.

“It was raining that day, and that made it much more real,” Repeta said. “You have these guys walking through the field in their metal ponchos – that was the setting they were dressed to walk in.”

Repeta’s return to Midway was unlike anything he ever experienced before. Thousands of people shouted and smiled at him as they thanked him for his service. Repeta was surprised to look into the crowd and see his own family proudly cheering for him — as a husband, as a father, as a grandfather — as he came home.

The mixed feelings he had battled that morning were gone. He now believed he was a hero.

Repeta felt so empowered by the day that he immediately set out to help other veterans receive their honor.

“The first thing I did when I came home is I called my brother-in-law, a World War II veteran, and told him that he should sign up and go,” Repeta said. “He did that, and of course we shared our common experience!”