Our Pledge To You

Opinion

10 years later: Honor Flight Chicago still powerful journey for vets, volunteers

Gene Holzmeister, one of the vets I assisted, at the Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC | Provided photo

Gene Holzmeister of LaGrange Park, one of the vets I assisted, visits the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C. | Provided photo

As we commemorate Memorial Day 2018, let’s take time to remember and honor those elderly veterans still living who fought for us in World War II and Korea.

OPINION

Recently I was invited to participate in a truly wonderful program called Honor Flight Chicago which flew these proud former warriors to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II and Korean memorials.

One of the vets said that his wife had died only a few days before the flight, but in her last words made him promise he would not miss his flight.

For 101 veterans (75 Korean vets and 26 WW II), mostly in their 90s, who gathered to board a charter plane at Midway Airport on April 26 at 4AM, it was a thrilling experience to be flown to Dulles Airport and be greeted by a hundred volunteers thanking them for their service.

There seemed to be an almost instant camaraderie among these old soldiers meeting for the first time during the flight as they reminisced and marveled that they were still around to make the journey. One vet observed upon landing that “the flight itself was enough for me to make this a very special event in my life. I could go home now.”

But there was full day ahead in Washington with visits to the World War II memorial, the Korean War memorial, the nearby Vietnam memorial and then to the Air and Space Museum by Dulles airport.

I was designated as the guardian on the flight for Gene, Larry and Cliff, three Korean War veterans from Brookfield and LaGrange Park who told their stories of the Army Air Corps, Korea and their lives as civilians.

Larry, who owned a hardware store in Brookfield, recalls happily playing the accordion in his service days telling me, “music opens up more doors than any key.”

Honor Flight Chicago

Each of the men were deployed in wheelchairs, so that upon arrival in Dulles two more guardians were assigned to bring the three men to the events of the day. | Provided photo

Honor Flight Chicago

When our recent flight returned to Midway Airport, there were hundreds of volunteers waiting just past security to give this tired but happy planeload of veterans a hearty hometown welcome. | Provided photo

It was a moving experience for me as well to be an honorary guardian for those who truly were our country’s guardians and sacrificed so much. I thought how much my father would have enjoyed it having been an Army Air Corps captain who was based in Benghazi and flew 53 missions in the North Africa and the European theatre … his final combat mission was June 6, D-Day. “We are old and frail now,” said one of the veterans on the flight, “but we were tough young whippersnappers back then!”

A lot of planning and logistics are necessary to make these special flights which are staffed with doctors, nurses, medicine and extra oxygen to assure the health of the vets. But it is a labor of love for Mary Pettinato, CEO and cofounder who raises the funds, organizes the volunteers, medical personnel, the vets and coordinates logistics with the national program.

“I got involved when one day I asked my father, who was then an 89-year-old World War II vet, if there was anything special he wanted to do,” Mary remembers. “With tears in his eyes, he said I would like to visit the World War II Memorial.” A promise to her father to make that happen also became a full-time commitment to others who served in the bloody battles of World War II and Korea.

The appreciation of the veterans would have been hard to miss – all part of what Honor Flight Chicago calls “the power of thank you.”

Honor Flight Chicago, founded in 2008, hosts a flight every four weeks between April and September. The next flight is set for June 6, D-Day. Those who would like participate or donate to help other veterans to make this special trip can visit the Honor Flight Chicago website or call the hotline at 773-227-VETS.