After serving his country for more than 50 years, former Sen. Bob Dole is spending his days thanking others for doing the same -- as a group of 150 people from the Batavia area discovered quite by surprise Friday.
The group, consisting of veterans, spouses and war widows spanning several generations, came to see the nation's monuments on a tour planned by Assemblyman Steve Hawley.
But they didn't know until they got here that they would be meeting a living monument to the American courage that won World War II.
Veterans groups visit the National World War II Memorial day after day, "and I try to make every trip," said Dole, 86, an Army veteran with a Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts and a right arm paralyzed by his war wounds. "And when I'm out of town, my wife comes."
To Dole -- a former Senate Republican leader and three-time presidential candidate who won his party's nomination in 1996 -- it's the least he can do.
"I just want to say thank you," he said. "If it weren't for some of these guys, we'd be speaking Japanese."
Instead, veterans from several conflicts and the peacetime in between found themselves talking giddily, in plain English, about a trip made more special by a surprise visit with a war hero and political legend.
"This is like meeting the pope!" exclaimed Kevin Sheehan of Albion, a towering hulk of a man who served in the Army in the 1980s. "I'm a huge fan of him for what he did for the country, for what he did as a politician. I had no idea he was going to be here. This is like Christmas!"
In some cases, the brief conversations between Dole and the local vets were much like the conversations comrades in arms often have when they meet years after the battles ended.
For example, Donald Dumbleton of East Bethany walked up to Dole and introduced himself and asked: "Did you ever serve on an LST?"
No, Dole said, he never spent any time on any of the "landing ship tanks" that ferried American troops to European shores at the height of the conflict.
"But I bet you did!" Dole replied, and sure enough, the 84-year-old Navy veteran recalled landing in one during the invasion of southern France.
Dumbleton said it was "fantastic" to be able to meet Dole on his visit to the World War II Memorial, which resonated with Dumbleton not only because he served in the Navy, but also because he lost a brother in the battles against Japan in the South Pacific.
Looking back over his shoulder at the circle of pillars and the fountain that comprise the monument, Dumbleton marveled that it took until this decade for the nation to build the tribute to the 16 million Americans who served and the 400,000 who died in World War II.
"It's about time," he said.
That's the way many of the attendees felt about the trip itself.
"It's been probably 40 years since I've been here, and they've done so much with making all the memorials," said Richard E. Rung, 82, a Coast Guard veteran from Batavia. "I'm so glad they finally did something for the World War II vets."
Lydia McPhall, a native of Germany who lived through the war and then married an American soldier, the late Harold McPhall, said it was "tremendous" to see the memorial.
"The misery that war caused was just terrible, but this is a terrific tribute to the GIs," said McPhall, of Hilton, near Rochester.
The trip was the second for veterans and their families pulled together by Hawley, a Democrat from Albion and a veteran himself. Inspired by a World War II vet who wanted to see the memorial, Hawley established his annual "Patriot Trip" as an intergenerational outing that spans four days and takes in all the sites.
"People are talking, they're sharing their experiences," Hawley said. "It's great that we were able to pull this together.
This year, Hawley got a big boost from Rep. Chris Lee, R-Clarence, who arranged for Dole's visit.
"Any time our veterans take the opportunity to visit our nation's capital, it's an important event," said Lee, who said he was grateful to Hawley for putting the trip together and grateful to Dole for making time to see the vets from Western New York.
Dole said he enjoys doing just that.
"You meet so many interesting people from all walks of life, from all over the country," Dole said. "This going to be a big moment for them for the rest of their lives. It's very emotional."
It was clearly emotional, too, to Dole, who greeted every veteran like an old friend.
"He looks very happy about being here," noted Nancy Curtis of Alexander, who said she made the trip on behalf of the brother she lost in Vietnam and her father, a World War II veteran who "never lived to see this."
Gloria O'Mara, 70, of Albion noted that Dole was "very cordial" to everyone.
What's more, the longtime senator from Kansas was a good sport.
Long noted for a razor-sharp wit, Dole didn't flinch when O'Mara's husband, Korean War veteran Jim O'Mara, approached him and started asking about how much he got paid for his ads for Viagra, the erectile dysfunction drug that Dole famously touted in the late 1990s.
Laughing, Dole told O'Mara that he never got paid.