Honor Flights at Park Place

Fae Gedz,
Honor Flight 8/7/13

“Everyone should serve,” says Fae Gedz matter-of-factly. “Kids today shouldn’t have a choice.” The five other veterans around the table nod and voice their agreement.

It’s not that “kids today” are any worse than teens of the 1940s, Wally Sandberg is quick to explain. He remembers that when he was 18 or 19, the approaching war wasn’t any more meaningful to him than today’s news headlines are to today’s high schoolers. The difference is, Wally and his peers were drafted into service, required to enlist — and the resulting experience was formative for them.

“It changed my life,” says Wally, who spent three years stateside in the Army Air Force. He doesn’t mean anything dramatic by that; just that serving his country gave him a larger sense of the world, and being forced to change his school and career trajectory gave him a chance to define himself in relation to that larger worldview.

Park Place veterans

Fae and Wally, along with Robert Engdahl, Bob Van Zandbergen, Tom Meyers, and Len Sytsma, are all World War II veterans who have participated in Honor Flight Chicago. They are also all residents of Park Place of Elmhurst, a Life Care community owned by Providence Life Services. On a sunny October afternoon, they gathered in a Park Place dining room to discuss their experiences and share what made Honor Flight so meaningful for them.

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Pictured from left are Park Place residents Fae Gedz, Wally Sandberg, Robert Engdahl, Bob Van Zandbergen, Tom Meyers, and Len Sytsma in their Honor Flight shirts.

What is Honor Flight?

It’s a one-day round trip to Washington, DC, designed to “honor, remember, and celebrate” the men and women who fought in the most widespread war in history. It’s a long day, packed with visits to memorials, respectful receptions, box lunches, commemorative ceremonies, and stories exchanged with fellow vets.

It is not unusual for WWII veterans to be unaware of Honor Flight. The first Honor Flight was flown as recently as 2005, specifically to give veterans an opportunity to see the World War II Memorial that had been completed in 2004. Today there are 114 chapters in the Honor Flight network, including Honor Flight Chicago, which was founded in 2008.

Fae, a former Army Sergeant, first heard of the program from other Park Place veterans who had participated. Though there is a waiting list, Fae’s application was processed quickly because of her age—she is 94 years old. Her flight was on August 7, 2013, and her grandson was allowed to serve as her escort.

Amazement and emotion

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Bob Van Zandbergen, Honor Flight 4/27/11

All six of the Park Place veterans expressed amazement with how efficiently their day’s agenda was organized and how detailed the planning was. “They thought of everything,” says Bob Van Zandbergen about his April 27, 2011, Honor Flight. Bob’s plane out of Midway Airport actually had to be turned around because of engine trouble, but Honor Flight volunteers took it in stride and still created a meaningful day for the veterans, with only a few adjustments to the schedule.

Len Sytsma (Honor Flight 7/7/11), pictured below in the khaki cap, found the ceremony at the World War II Memorial to be the most meaningful part of the trip. The columns representing the states and territories that composed the United States in 1945 are majestic, but the Freedom Wall had the biggest impact. The 4,048 gold stars — each representing 100 Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice — form a pointed reminder of “the price of freedom.”

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Mail call

Another highlight for all participants is “mail call,” an updated version of the practice of calling out the names of service members and handing them their mail. Honor Flight Chicago makes arrangements for family and friends of each participant to write letters and cards expressing thanks for their service. Bob Engdahl’s niece is a grade-school teacher, so when she was asked to write a letter, she got her whole class involved. The fifth- and sixth-graders colored cards and wrote thoughtful, personal messages. Whether the mail is from close friends or people the veteran doesn’t even know, each piece becomes a treasured keepsake.

Homecoming

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A hero’s welcome

At the end of what is usually an emotional, 18-hour day, the veterans arrive back at Midway Airport, where they are greeted with a hero’s welcome. Hundreds of grateful well-wishers line the hallways, bearing signs and waving flags to show their respect and gratitude. Military bands play, and current members of the armed forces salute the veterans and help escort them to their waiting families.

“This generation doesn’t talk about the war much,” says Bob Engdahl’s daughter Cindy. “My dad actually thought he had already been repaid for his service — with the benefits he received when he returned, like the GI Bill education benefits. So he wasn’t really looking for any acknowledgement”.

“But,” she continues, “I could tell this trip really meant a lot to him. He still gets a little emotional when he thinks about it.”

Spreading the word

Park Place is honored to be home to so many veterans, and they encourage all veterans to participate in an Honor Flight. In July, Park Place invited Tracey Rousonelos, Flight Coordinator for Honor Flight Chicago, to give a presentation about the history of Honor Flight. Bob Van Zandbergen, Len Sytsma, and Tom Meyer wore their Honor Flight shirts and shared some of their experiences as well, and a number of residents expressed interest.

“It’s really a wonderful day,” says Tom Meyers, who flew on 9/21/11. “I’m glad I did it.”

For more information about Honor Flight Chicago, view the 2008 Emmy-nominated video narrated by Gary Sinise:

Then visit HonorFlightChicago.org to sign up your veteran today!

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