Jul 20, 2009
Rick Niksic of our office recently discovered the nonprofit Honor Flight Network, which has the privilege of giving our veterans a special tribute for their service to our country. Honor Flight transports veterans, especially senior veterans or those with failing health, to Washington, D.C. to visit their memorials — but it’s much more than that. Read on to hear about Rick’s amazing experience as a guide with Honor Flight.
My assignment as a volunteer guide began with a Saturday training session. Guides met with the volunteer Honor Flight leaders and got a preview of the trip and the job of the guide. The primary duty of the guide is provide constant company for the veteran, with an emphasis on safety.
Day of the flight:
Guides and volunteers met at Chicago Midway Airport at 4:00 a.m. for a final briefing.
The vets began arriving at 4:30 and are introduced to their guides. My veteran was 84-year-old Navy Bosun’s Mate William “Bill” Lebus. Bill was born and raised on the south side of Chicago. He had a promising baseball career — he was offered a minor league contract with the Cubs at 16. He could have been the pitcher that the Cubs are still looking for. Ironically, Bill is a lifelong White Sox fan!
At 17, Bill got permission from his parents (reluctantly given) to enlist soon after Pearl Harbor was attacked. He chose the Navy because he “wanted to see the world.” He served as a gunner assigned to Merchant Marine ships in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, where he was wounded twice and received a Purple Heart as well as other decorations.
Speaking with Bill came easily. We were able to talk about sports (our mutual love of the White Sox), his years of flying his own plane until he had to give it up in 1999, and the fact that Bill was a successful participant in pool tournaments all over the U.S. We spent some of the quiet moments on our trip talking about his experiences in battle, lost friends, and a book he wrote about his experience saving the SS Robin Sherwood from sinking after it had a mishap while crossing the North Atlantic.
Bill still lives independently in Des Plaines, Illinois and remains active in many veterans’ groups.
The trip itself is a miracle of organization and an emotional roller coaster. Volunteers, young active military personnel, and various officials escort the veterans to a Southwest Airlines gate where they are greeted by the USO serving breakfast — and an “Andrews Sisters” act singing the songs that these men heard as they were shipping out 67 years ago! Vets, guides, group leaders and 60 wheelchairs(!) are loaded on a flight destined for Dulles Airport in Washington DC.
Upon landing at Dulles we were saluted by fire equipment shooting streams of water as fire crews stood at attention, saluting as we pulled into the gate. As we unloaded (70 vets, 60 Guides, 60 wheel chairs, and numerous volunteers), we were greeted by Honor Flight “Ground Crew” and active troops in uniform. The warmth and respect was amazing! We were escorted to large coach buses where we went to our first stop — Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier. After a emotional tour past 320,000 graves of men and women who served our country, we were taken to Fort Meyer for lunch with members of “The Old Guard.” This is where the Presidential Ceremonial Guard is stationed. We were joined for lunch by members of the Guard (who all look like they could be soldiers cast in a movie — the these young men are the best of the best), who showed a reverence and respect for our veterans that brought tears to vets and guides alike.
Our next stop was the World War Two Memorial, where we were greeted by WWII re-enactors and local officials. (I thought the time spent here would be the most emotional part of the day — but I was later proven wrong). As we assembled at this beautiful memorial, a ceremony was held to honor the men and women who served that are no longer with us. As “Taps” was played you could hear a pin drop, and there was not a dry eye in the place. Then we spent over an hour at a computer center where families can memorialize their veteran. We were able find Bill’s war history, as well as my father’s — Sgt. Joseph Niksic, who landed at Normandy and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, but passed away before “his memorial” was completed.
Our next stop was the Lincoln Memorial, where some of the group was able to visit the Korean War Memorial and the Viet Nam Memorial and we spent a little relaxation time in the shade.
As we arrived at Baltimore Airport for our flight back, we were again greeted by another group of supporters! After boarding (70 vets! 60 guides! and 60 wheelchairs!), we started the flight home, which was interrupted by an announcement of “mail call.” Any vet remembers the importance of Mail Call — it meant letters from home that might have been weeks in finding these young soldiers and sailors! On our flight each veteran received a package of letters thanking them for their service, from family members and from school children from all over Chicagoland.
With another salute as we approached the gate, we were all pretty well spent. It was 11:30 p.m. and we though, our long day was about at an end. Bill and I were two of the first off the plane, where we were greeted at the end of the jet way by Honor Flight volunteers and a few young troops. The shock came as we turned a corner and were greeted by over 200 sailors in dress whites, standing at rigid attention on either side of the hallway. As we passed through this gauntlet, each seaman snapped a crisp salute. We all gathered at the end where, one at a time, our veterans were approached by a sailor who asked for “the honor of escorting them through the rest of the welcome home.” The next turn brought us through another gauntlet of 200 motorcycle club members holding American flags and welcoming each vet with a handshake and a pat on the back. All of this with the accompaniment of a drum and bagpipe corps.
The final turn brought us in to a crowd of over a thousand friends and family members welcoming these heroes back home. Family members had been asked to be there for the welcome (but not to tell their vet). At one point Bill said “Oh my gosh — there’s my daughter, grandson, and some of my great-grandkids!” As we reached the end, the sailors excused themselves with a salute and family members started to find each other in tearful reunions.
I finally made it home about 2:00 a.m. — 24 hours after getting out of bed… but I couldn’t get to sleep as I relived this incredible day.
The time and dedication of the people in Honor Flight is amazing! From founders like Susan Stanits and Mary Pettinato; to trip volunteers like Steve Schaeffer and Hershel Luckinbill; to Chicago volunteers like Roseann Darabaris who was there at 5 a.m. and back for the welcome home at midnight and ended up giving Bill a ride home so he wouldn’t have to worry about finding a cab! These are people are quietly working to honor an endangered species — our World War II veterans who, quite literally, saved our way of life and then quietly came home and got back to the business of rebuilding America.
I want to thank Honor Flight for the opportunity to join them on this trip and to also thank Bill Lebus, an American hero, for the privilege of accompanying him to visit his memorial.
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