(CBS) — 89 World War II veterans from Chicago just got to make an unforgettable journey, travelling to their memorial in Washington.
Monday night, we saw some of the joys of that journey. Tonight, there’s sorrow along with that joy as well as the reward experienced by the volunteers who go along with the veterans.
The Chicago veterans arrive in Washington D.C., all of them hovering around the age of 90. Most in wheelchairs, but this is a trip they can’t miss, a time to see the World War II memorial, their memorial.
The ceremony was solemn. The temperature at least 100 degrees, but no one complained. The experience was made possible by Honor Flight Chicago, run by Mary Pettinato who, so far, has taken 5,000 vets on this unforgettable trip, and is trying to find thousands more.
“Our single most important goal is to find, recruit and fly the 20,000 remaining veterans living in the Chicago area.”
For Al Whitaker of Highland Indiana, this trip has been bittersweet. We went with him on his first trip to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial so he could find the name of his son, Fred, who died in that war more than 40 years ago.
He later told CBS 2’s Rob Johnson, “I don’t know. Probably realized it now that it means so much. I still can’t understand why we fought that war.”
Fred was Whitaker’s only son and he said of Fred’s death, “I never got over it.”
All of the veterans are accompanied on this emotional trip by what they call a guardian. Whitaker’s guardian Erin Radosevich who’s a nurse on her first honor flight, said this is about honoring the heroes.
“I take care of veterans every day at the hospital and wanted to give my time.”
Guardian and board member Read Boeckel is on his 55th and final honor flight and says he has gotten so much out of helping the vets.
“They finally have a chance to go to their memorial, which obviously you see these men in wheelchairs that would not have that ability, and we’re able to take them.”
So after a grueling, hot, hectic, and exhilarating day, these veterans and volunteers climb back on the plane for the trip back to Chicago, each man receiving letters of support in manila envelopes from loved ones, friends, politicians and kids. Veteran John Ullinskey said,” this is something unbelievable. It hurts my heart.”
But nothing can prepare aging hearts for the overwhelming response they get back at Midway. It was a welcome committee of bagpipes, patriot guard motorcyclists and thousands of fans, friends and family.
A total of 5,000 Chicago area veterans have made this journey. But, Mary Pettinato says her greatest challenge, aside from locating the rest of these American heroes, is convincing them and their loved ones that it isn’t a scam. It’s completely free for the veterans and it’s done to honor them.
Honor Flight Chicago has four more flights this year. The next is July 30 and then there’s one in September and two in October. Find out more at honorflightchicago.org/mnu-home. You can also call 773-227-8387.