Veterans2018-07-22T21:16:18-05:00

A day I’ll talk about forever

As Chuck Sutera thought about his Honor Flight Chicago experience, he made a confident statement.

“Honor Flight was a day that I’ll talk about forever,” said Sutera, a former Army private from the Korean War. “This was an experience I won’t ever forget.”

Other than having to get up early — very early — as day was breaking, Sutera didn’t really have any set expectations. “All I knew was that it was starting at 4:00 a.m. But by the time it was over, and we arrived back at the airport, I realized that it was a real honor to have been chosen to go on the trip.”

One particularly enduring aspect of his experience was the Welcome Home Celebration. “Having all of my family at the airport — and all of the other people that were there welcoming us back home too — was amazing! My family was well represented, and I got to shake the Governor’s hand.”

Looking back on his experience, Sutera said, “It was an honor for me to be in the service — and I was fortunate to not see any combat. But this is something that — as a veteran — you deserve. Do whatever you can to get on that list and make the trip!”

“This is something that — as a veteran — you deserve. Do whatever you can to get on that list and make the trip!”

Chuck Sutera, Korean War veteran

Like a Jimmy Stewart movie

George Anthos had a confession shortly after taking his trip with Honor Flight Chicago to Washington, D.C.

“I never thought I would see the day Korean War vets would get the recognition they deserve,” said Anthos, a former heavy weapons squad leader during the Korean War. “I’ve never shook so many hands, been hugged everywhere I went and even kissed on the cheek a few times.

“It was a wonderful day in D.C. I loved it.”

Anthos admitted to being emotionally overwhelmed by parts of the experience. “At my old age,” he said, “I’ve become more emotional. Visiting the Korean and Vietnam memorials really hit me hard.”

One highlight of the day was meeting retired General Colin Powell and shaking his hand. Powell is one of Anthos’ personal heroes. Another highlight was the constant attention from his Guardian — a woman named Valerie.“She was lots of fun, smart, and held my hand most of the time, which made me feel like I was back in high school with my best gal,” Anthos said.

As enjoyable as those moments were, nothing could top the Welcome Home celebration.

“It was the most mind-blowing and wonderful experience that every vet should have,” he said. “People I’ve never even met wanted to shake my hand and take pictures with me. My family visited me with signs and banners. It was unreal, like a Jimmy Stewart movie.”

Reflecting on the experience, it’s still hard for Anthos to not get emotional. “There are no words in the dictionary to describe that day,” he said. “It was a day of honor that I will never forget.”

“It was the most mind-blowing and wonderful experience that every vet should have. People I’ve never even met wanted to shake my hand and take pictures with me.”

George Anthos, Korean War veteran

Taking my breath away

Korean War veteran Don Borem was overwhelmed by the efforts of Honor Flight Chicago and the thousands of supporters who help the organization commemorate the sacrifices made by U.S. servicemen in the fight for freedom.

“The Honor Flight Chicago day was without a doubt one of the most beautiful and heart-warming experiences of my entire life,” Don said. “It was beyond anything I could ever imagine.”

Borem served as a Navy Aviation Machinist Mate, Petty Officer 3rd Class, aboard the USS Currituck AV-7 based out of Norfolk, Va. When he flew with Honor Flight Chicago, he joined more than 100 fellow veterans on an excursion to Washington, D.C., for a whirlwind tour of the capital’s museums and war memorials. He did not know what to expect, and initially, the idea of the trek was daunting.

To be honest, when I first heard that I would need to be at Midway Airport at 4 a.m. and then fly to D.C. and back all in one day, I was doubtful if Honor Flight Chicago would be for me,” he said. “ After talking to a volunteer, I decided to give it a try, and am I ever happy I did.”

“Those glorious memories will always bring a tear to my eye when I think of how many wonderful people did so much to honor the vets from so many years ago.”

Don Borem, Korean War veteran

Borem and his fellow veterans saw numerous memorials, including the moving Korean War Memorial and World War II Memorial. The return to Midway Airport topped off an emotional day.

“The number of people that were there – men, women and children, young and old – were so very sincere,” Borem said. “The bands playing. The cheering. The flag waving. The hugs, and sometimes kisses, from such a large number of people was unbelievable.  The whole thing took my breath away.”

Borem appreciated the efforts of the hundreds of volunteers who worked to make the day a success, he said. And he was impressed by the professionalism of Honor Flight Chicago.

“The amount of work, planning and effort that made that whole day, from beginning to end, is something that will be etched in my memory as long as I live,” Borem said. “Those glorious memories will always bring a tear to my eye when I think of how many wonderful people did so much to honor the vets from so many years ago. God bless them one and all.”

All and all, the uplifting voyage was worth waking up so early in the morning.

“That day made me proud,” he said. “Proud to have served my country and proud to be an American. A great big ‘Thank You’ to everyone who was involved in putting on and running this wonderful program.”

“The Honor Flight Chicago day was without a doubt one of the most beautiful and heart-warming experiences of my entire life.”

Don Borem, Korean War veteran

Three Korean War heroes

Meet Bob Guilfoyle, Li Schiavitti and Rich Bernier, three Korean War veterans who received a day of honor and thanks from Honor Flight Chicago.

Honor. Thank. Inspire.

Pete Balma was a platoon sergeant in Korea during the Korean War. He lost friends in battle. He received a Purple Heart, and yet when his service was over, he had to pay his own way home. Pete Balma is a hero, and in the video below, he travels to Washington, D.C., along with 105 other senior war veterans for a day of honor, thanks and inspiration.

A story for my family

As Nate Moffett’s children were growing up, he chose not to tell them about his service during the Korean War. It was a time that he wanted to keep to himself.

In 2017, though, Moffett’s grandson asked him about the war. Then in 2018, Moffett flew to Washington, D.C., with Honor Flight Chicago. The day was special for Moffett, but it was the aftermath that he cherishes most. All the gratitude and respect bestowed on Moffett inspired him to share his story and experiences with his children and grandchildren.

“I can pass this on to my grandchildren,” Moffett said. “I sent the pictures from the trip to my son and daughters because back then, I didn’t tell my kids about my service. Last year, my grandson asked me for the first time about my service. Now that I have pictures from the trip, and the Korean Memorial, I can show him.”

He also has the letters he was surprised with during Mail Call on the flight back to Chicago that he can now show to his family.

“When we had Mail Call, it brought back a lot of memories for me,” he said. “It was very touching that students and even kindergarteners wrote to me about the Korean War.”

Moffett was particularly grateful to his Virginia-based guardian, who sent him a number of pictures from the trip within a day of his return home.

Moffett said he enjoyed how much he learned on the trip, and he wants to go back to Washington so he can see the National 9-11 Pentagon Memorial, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, and other sites that he saw from the bus.

As for now, he plans to share his experiences with other vets and encourage them to take the same flight. Also, now that he knows Popeye’s Chicken sponsored an Honor Flight Chicago trip, he plans to make Popeye’s a regular stop on his way home from church.

“Last year, my grandson asked me for the first time about my service. Now that I have pictures from the trip, and the Korean Memorial, I can show him.”

Nate Moffett

My Honor Flight Chicago experience

Larry Ketchmark flew with Honor Flight Chicago in April 2018 aboard the organization’s 83rd flight to Washington, D.C. Afterward, Ketchmark looked back on the experience and the impact it had on him.

Enhancing my faith in Americans

It says a lot about many World War II and Korean War veterans that when they return from their Honor Flight Chicago Day of Honor trip to Washington, D.C., they can’t stop thanking others.

Chuck Benson is one of those veterans. “From 4 a.m. till night, it became something special and unforgettable,” he said about his Day of Honor. “The memorials, the presentations, and the awesome volunteers made for an incredible day.”

The “reality of the Korean War Memorial,” as Benson put it, hit home for him during his visit to Washington. “I remembered slogging through the rice paddies,” he recalled. Chuck was a sergeant in the Marine Corps from 1951-54, serving in the U.S. and Korea. He was a wireman, laying and troubleshooting lines and working in a communications bunker.

Arriving back at Midway Airport at the end of his Day of Honor was also meaningful for Benson, but in an entirely different way.

“The amount of people was overwhelming,” he said. “The music and the cheering, the handshakes and the thanks, the hugs from my family. I felt very special and lucky. I can’t thank you enough.”

Benson has already told other veterans not to miss an opportunity to experience what he did.

“It enhanced my faith in Americans and all fellow beings,” he added. “That so many could give so much time to honor strangers is awesome and inspiring. God bless the volunteers.”

“That so many could give so much time to honor strangers is awesome and inspiring.”

Chuck Benson, Korean War veteran

Considering re-enlisting

Raymond Shilkaitis didn’t know what to expect of his day of honor with Honor Flight Chicago. What he ended up experiencing was a day that would change the rest of his life.

After arriving at Midway, the trip quickly became the most enjoyable and memorable event of his life. The staff, the volunteers, and the guardians instantly made him and his fellow veterans feel comfortable. “You could tell it was a labor of love,” he said. “We lacked for nothing. For a moment, I thought I might re-enlist. Wishful thinking for an 87-year-old.”

Shilkaitis served in the Navy during the Korean War as a Radarman 2/C on the destroyer USS Rogers. Part of their duty was to guard bombers entering North Korea, and the destroyer cruised as far north as 15 miles from Vladivostok, Russia. “My feelings about being a Navy veteran have never changed. I was happy and proud then, and I am happy and proud now. This trip gave me enormous pride in being an American Veteran.”

There were countless memories that stood out to Raymond during the Honor Flight. The most impactful, though, were The Air Force Drill Team performance and the Welcome Home Celebration.

“The moment I stepped out of the plane, the impact got bigger and bigger as I got close to a large group of family and friends. It was mind boggling to see so many people along the way cheering and hand-shaking with so much enthusiasm.  For so many people to come out at night and in the rain was truly heart-warming.”

Feeling appreciated

Korean War veteran Fred Yndestad was expecting his Honor Flight Chicago experience to be “the greatest venture in my 84 years.” His expectations were met, and then some. He loved every minute of it, and he said he will never forget his flight on May 10, 2017.

The planning and the people involved in the trip really stood out to Yndestad. “The people were so helpful,” he said, including “the military personnel involved at all of the presentations at the monuments.”

Yndestad’s Honor Flight was his first trip to Washington, D.C., and he “cherished seeing the monuments for the fallen comrades.”

The Welcome Home celebration was also especially meaningful for Yndestad. “My entire family was there to welcome me back. It really brought tears to my eyes. A small boy gave me a toy soldier. I really felt appreciated. “

Yndestad says that he would recommend the experience to his fellow veterans in a heartbeat.

“It was one of the best days of my life. I appreciate all of the people who gave me and my fellow veterans a day we will always remember. God bless you people.”

A heartwarming day

For Korean War veteran Michael Lindblad, the best part of his journey with Honor Flight Chicago was the people: his fellow vets, friends, family and the volunteers who helped make the day a success.

“I will cherish this day for the rest of my life,” Lindblad said. “I’d been told by one of my buddies who had been on the flight last year what to expect, but to experience first-hand what we took in was heartwarming.”

Lindblad served in the U.S. Air Force from October 1951 to October 1955, rising to the rank of Sergeant. He joined more than 100 other veterans from WWII and the Korean War during the April 12, 2017 Honor Flight. The trip took on a special meaning, he said, because he was paired with his brother-in-law, Bill, who is also a veteran.

Lindblad appreciated the efforts of all the volunteers, he said, including a nurse who looked after him. He also became fast friends with his guardian, Mike, who accompanied him in Washington, D.C. The pair planned to meet up in Chicago when Mike “comes through on his hog.”

“Honor Flight is run better than any top corporation,” Lindblad said. “The caring for the vets comes first, and little things like our dog tags, and shirts, coffee and rolls like the old USO … I want to thank all your volunteers for going the extra mile.”

Lindblad and his fellow veterans flew to Washington, D.C., where Honor Flight Chicago whisked them away on a tour of museums and monuments, including the WWII and Korean War Memorials.

“The beautiful, haunting Korean Memorial makes me think of all the young souls we lost there,” Lindblad said. They also received a special address from retired Army Gen. Colin Powell. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”

The return home capped off an emotional day, he said, as they were greeted by thousands of cheering people who attended the Welcome Home.

“If you didn’t have some tears flowing on our arrival with the bagpipes playing and the enormous crowd cheering, what more could we ask for?” Lindblad said. “The bagpipes were a wonderful welcome, and of course having your children, grandkids, wife and others close to you there was exhilarating. No matter how tired you might have been, the crowd really pumped you up.”

Treating the effects of the Korean War

The first major Cold War conflict lived up to its name.

Anyone who served during the Korean War, has talked with veterans or watched old newsreel footage, knows there was a silent, relentless adversary in addition to the enemy – the bone-chilling, frigid temperatures on the Korean peninsula.

Christy “Chris” Bellina, who recently returned from his Honor Flight Chicago “Day of Honor” trip to Washington, D.C., dealt with the effects of that adversary first-hand.

An Army corporal from November 1951 to November 1953, Chris served as an infantry and field medic at Brook Medical Center in San Antonio, TX. He treated incoming casualties from Korea – and many of those were frostbite cases.

Chris considers himself blessed on many fronts and is grateful for much, which may be a result of starting out with so little.

“Being born in the Depression,” he said, “our family was very poor … often my dad could not pay the $1.00 a month tuition. As a result, the nuns knew our problem and when I was in the 7th and 8th grade, they got me a job as a janitor sweeping the classrooms for $1.00 a night. True story! Being a janitor is not bad.”

Chris appreciated his Day of Honor in Washington, from the “many volunteers who could not do enough for us” to Honor Flight Chicago Co-Founder, CEO, and “Janitor” Mary Pettinato. “You will never know the joy you have brought to so many thankful vets,” Chris said. “God bless you, your family and all who helped make it the success it was. Thank you, thank you.”

The strong feelings Chris has about the Day of Honor experience probably help explain his blunt message to other veterans with a chance to make this trip:

“It would be one of the dumbest things you could do (to say no) and you would miss out on one of the greatest days of your life.”

Besides being full of gratitude, Chris has remained true to his roots. To Honor Flight Chicago he said, “If in need of a janitor, please call.”

Surpassing the good old days

Marty Bilecki vividly remembers important events from the past. But his recent Honor Flight Chicago Day of Honor trip to Washington, D.C., might rival anything from the “good old days,” he said.

His Washington visit brought back memories of growing up before World War II and his military experience overseas during the Cold War occupation of Germany. From 1953-55, Marty was an Army PFC serving as a Military Police officer in Augsburg, Germany, providing town patrol in southern and central Germany.

Marty’s expectations for the Day of Honor trip were surpassed by the end of the day. He was “overwhelmed” by volunteers at the departure from Chicago and upon his arrival in Washington. “It’s good knowing so many people still care,” he said. “I thought the vets were not appreciated anymore.”

Being asked about the Welcome Home Celebration at Midway Airport brought back more memories. Marty recalled “celebrating the end of World War II in our Chicago neighborhood and my return to that same neighborhood after my service.”

Marty was impressed after “seeing so many people come out that evening to honor us. I’m very proud now to have received so many good Americans’ comments. Especially the younger generation. I loved seeing them all at the Welcome Home party,” he said.

After offering a “Big Thanks” to all who made the day so memorable. Marty said that, because of his trip, another family member was poised to make Honor Flight Chicago memories of his own: Marty’s son-in-law James, a nurse, was about to take an Honor Flight Chicago trip to Washington as a medical guardian.

Speaking without a voice

Veterans who fly to Washington, D.C. with Honor Flight Chicago and are recognized for their service are asked afterward if they would be willing to share their experience with other veterans who haven’t yet received their day of honor.

Many veterans say yes. Others cite health issues as a reason they’d rather not speak.

Then there is Richard “Buster” Strauss, a Korean War veteran, who wouldn’t let a lost larynx prevent him from speaking about his memorable day.

Strauss was a corporal in the U.S. Army who served in Korea with combat engineers as a radio operator. He said there were several memorable parts of his recent Honor Flight Chicago trip to Washington, from the guardian assigned to him for the day (“my guardian angel and personal guide to the sights”), to the reception at Dulles Airport that was “much-appreciated and unexpected,” to the Welcome Home Celebration.

“At Midway, it totally blew me away and to tears of joy,”Strauss recalled. “The final walk from the plane through all the people welcoming all of us” was especially meaningful to him. “A far cry from when I was discharged in October 1952 and met by three people – my dad, mother and fiancé!”

For someone for whom speech no longer comes as easily as it does to most of us, Strauss doesn’t seem to have much difficulty serving as an “honorary ambassador” for Honor Flight Chicago. If another veteran asked him about Honor Flight Chicago, “I would tell them to sign up ASAP,” he said. “My sister, a Marine in World War II, has taken my advice and is scheduled to fly in September.”

Many people know little of or don’t remember U.S. veterans’ service – and sacrifice – in Korea from 1950-53. About his Honor Flight Chicago Day of Honor, Buster Strauss said it “made me realize that I was only one small part of the ongoing effort to bring peace to the Koreas.”

An experience of a lifetime

Tom Quinn thought he was prepared for his Honor Flight Chicago trip to Washington, D.C. Like many veterans, he had heard stories about it.

Now that his trip is over, he has some important advice for those yet to go.

“I would tell every veteran I know that it is an experience of a lifetime,” Tom said. “I would tell each one of my fellow vets that the people of America are giving you a very special thank you for serving your country. You deserve this honor. Do not miss out.”

Tom was a corporal in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, serving in a Fire Detection Center. He plotted topography maps and sent coordinates for missile launches into battle. It was no surprise that a highlight of his Honor Flight Chicago trip to Washington was seeing the Korean War Memorial.

But when asked what was the most memorable part of the day, Tom said there were “so many memorable things that we experienced it is very difficult to pick only one.” Every stop the veterans made that day, including the visits to the World War II and Vietnam War memorials, was, in Tom’s words, “special unto itself.”

And what about coming home to the welcome at Midway Airport, and meeting up with his family? “Overwhelming,” Tom said.

The Korean War has often been called The Forgotten War. One of Honor Flight Chicago’s ongoing goals is to ensure that the veterans who fought there will always be remembered and appreciated for their service.

“I served 65 years ago,” Tom said. “I never would have believed that so many people really cared. And to all the volunteers, staff, organizers, and anyone associated with the program, thank you. Well done.”

Tears in my eyes

Tony Pirello, who served his country during the Korean War, was overwhelmed with the gratitude he received during Honor Flight Chicago’s 77th flight to Washington, D.C., a day-long journey to thank veterans for their sacrifice. The Chicago resident served in the U.S. Army from 1953 to 1955 as a small-arms instructor and attended the U.S. Army Engineer School.

He credits the hundreds of volunteers for ensuring a successful trip.

“Your entire staff of volunteers were so outstanding and considerate; I felt comfortable and thrilled traveling with other vets,” Pirello said. “It was a long, wonderful day, and the reception in Washington and Chicago brought tears to my eyes.”

Pirello said there were many highlights to his trip, including spending the day with his Guardian who escorted him through D.C. “Susan McGinnis was amazing,” he said. Other impressive moments included the visit to the Korean War Memorial and the “enormous” Welcome Home reception at Midway Airport.

“To see all the people who were there — both young and old — to thank us for our service, including Gov. Rauner,” Pirello said. “The marching bands, the cheers, it made me feel like I was a special hero.”

Pirello now tells other veterans about the Honor Flight Chicago experience and encourages them to apply as soon as possible. “I would tell them I had a wonderful and emotional experience.

He never sought acknowledgment for his service but appreciates the recognition from all people who made the day so meaningful.

“Since the Korean ‘Forgotten’ War ended 64 years ago, us vets were taken for granted and also ‘forgotten,’” Pirello said. “But thanks to Honor Flight Chicago’s mission, I and the other vets who were on the flight do now feel recognized for our service to our country with honor and dignity. I thank you all, and am grateful I was able to make the trip.”

Greeted like a hero

As a Korean War veteran who served in the New York Army National Guard’s 27th Division from 1953 to 1955, Jack Okesson felt a duty to protect his family and his community. That’s why it was so moving when those people recognized his sacrifice as part of Honor Flight Chicago’s 77th flight to Washington, D.C., on May 10.

“I thought it’d been a wonderful day,” he said.

Before the flight, he spoke with retired Army Col. Wallace Alcorn, a Korean War veteran who took his Honor Flight in 2016. Okesson said the colonel gave few details of the day’s events but did “exude an enthusiasm that was infectious.”

In the company of fellow veterans, Okesson visited D.C.’s war memorials and museums, but two events really stood out. The first was Mail Call, an Honor Flight Chicago tradition where family, friends and members of the community write thank-you letters to the veterans. Among his letters were two from his 8-year-old twin grandsons.

“When I was in the service, I received no mail — my family never wrote,” Okesson said. “To get that package and see it stuffed with all sorts of correspondence was overwhelming. I am not a weeper, but I wept then.”

The other stand-out experience of the day was the return to Midway Airport.

As Honor Flight Chicago’s jet landed, Okesson said he was looking forward to unwinding and returning home. As the aircraft approached the gate, two Chicago Fire Department engines provided a water cannon salute as a contingent of police officers and firefighters stood at attention on either side of the jet. It was a fitting end, he thought, to a moving day.

“As we walked up the ramp, I heard a great deal of noise up ahead and knew that it was not yet over,” Okesson said. “I was not at all ready for what was to come.”

A cadet from Great Lakes Naval Training Station escorted Okesson through the greeting lines, where hundreds of cheering family, friends, neighbors and other supporters welcomed the veterans home.

“I went into sensory overload,” he said. “To be greeted like I was was probably the most memorable and intense experience of my life. The people greeted me as if I was a hero, which I have never believed about myself.”

An unexpected reward

Thaddeus “Ted” Hillbruner never saw any combat during the Korean War. That’s why he was even more surprised by the hero’s treatment he received on May 10 as part of Honor Flight Chicago’s 77th flight to Washington, D.C.

“I never thought that we (veterans) not in actual combat would ever be so rewarded,” he said.

It took “continuous” encouragement from Hillbruner’s daughter and veteran friends to get him to participate in the day of honor, but once the day started, he knew he made the right decision.

“Every single person was first class,” he said. “You’ll never witness anything like it in (terms of) honor and grace.

“My guide, a retired Lieutenant Colonel, was a remarkable historian. He even sent me an album afterward with over 50 photos!”

An especially moving part of the Honor Flight Chicago experience is the Welcome Home Celebration, and that was true for Hillbruner and his fellow travelers. “Many of us shed tears after getting such an unbelievable welcome.”

A birthday to remember

Amador “Amie” Hoffman thought his Honor Flight experience would be informational, albeit maybe a bit boring.

Boy, was he wrong.

“My expectations were met and widely surpassed,” Hoffman said. “I would do it again — in a heartbeat. The whole day and experience were memorable!”

What made the day more unique for Hoffman was the fact his flight took place on his 86th birthday. “I’ve never heard ‘Happy Birthday’ sung so many times by so many people,” he said.

Hoffman served as a cryptograph tech for the Army during the Korean War. Even to this day, he can’t discuss the specifics of what he did due to the secrecy of his responsibilities. What he’s happy to discuss, though, is his Honor Flight Chicago experience. Just ask him and he’ll tell you it was “Wonderful! Stupendous! Once in a lifetime!”

“Seeing my whole family — wife, daughters, grandkids, son-in-law — standing there to greet me at the Welcome Home Celebration” was one of the most meaningful aspects of the day, he said. “My day of honor made me proud to know I had served my country.

“It also made me glad to know that lots of people remember and appreciate our efforts and sacrifices.”

Meet ‘The Bazooka Brothers’

Identical twins Tom and Tony Bezouska served together in the Army for more than two years during the Korean War.

The two — nicknamed “The Bazooka Brothers” because of their last name — spent roughly ten months in the 187th Airborne Combat Regimental Team. During that time, they made jumps from four different types of airplanes and took part in battles at Pork Chop Hill, Old Baldy and Triangle Ridge.

The brothers then became medics — their job, as they describe it, was to stabilize wounds enough to get soldiers to the battalion doctor. They saw things that still haunt them to this day.

Both brothers suffered shrapnel wounds during the war, but they had a job to do, and they made sure they did it well. They subscribed to a lesson they each learned early on during their time in Korea: “When you are in the infantry and the shelling comes in, you hit the ground. When you are a medic and the shelling comes, you go to work.”

Tom and Tony returned to the United States in January 1954, six months after the ceasefire. They sadly remember arriving home to no special festivities or ceremony. Most of their friends didn’t even know where the brothers were.

That realization hurt, and it stuck with the two for decades. In fact, they never spoke about their war experiences until 1995 when the Korean War Memorial was dedicated.

On April 12, 2017, “The Bazooka Brothers” experienced their long-awaited welcome home thanks to Honor Flight Chicago. The two were on Honor Flight Chicago’s 76th flight and took part in a day that they will never forget.

They were able to hear the thank yous they never heard so many years ago. And they were able to travel to Washington, D.C., and see the memorials along with more than 100 other senior war heroes.

When they arrived home after their day of honor, the two were beaming — together.

As Tom said, “After 65 years, it was worth the wait.”

Sharing her story

The scrapbook sits in Miljan Akin’s home, a source of memories and inspiration for the 84-year-old.

Inside the scrapbook rests a collection of letters from family members, friends and complete strangers thanking Akin for her service in the Air Force during the Korean War. She takes a few letters out from a bursting envelope inside the book every now and again to read them and remember the moment she first received them.

“Oh, that almost made me cry,” Akin said. “All the letters from my friends, some of my relatives and the school kids had letters with drawings that they had done at school, it was just unbelievable.”

 

Akin received the letters during Mail Call as part of her day of recognition from Honor Flight Chicago. Akin flew to Washington, D.C., with approximately 100 other veterans — including her husband, Frank Akin — on Sept. 7, 2016, and she still remembers just about every moment from the day. From the 4 a.m. arrival at Chicago’s Midway Airport to the tears that flowed down her cheeks as a band welcomed her and her other veterans to Dulles Airport. She definitely remembers the little children who shook her hand at the welcome home celebration back at Midway.

“I relive that day very often,” Akin said. “It was just a perfect day.”

The experience not only gave Akin a chance to see the memorials built in her honor and meet fellow veterans, but it helped introduce her story to loved ones and strangers who knew little about her service history.

“For years, a lot of people I know didn’t even know I had been in the service,” Akin said. “I had never talked about it.”

That includes her own children, who didn’t know much about their mother’s time in the armed forces. For many people in her life, seeing Akin’s pictures and hearing her talk about her day of honor with Honor Flight Chicago was the first time they heard about her service.

Some were surprised. All were proud.

Akin says she continues to relive the trip over and over in her mind. She takes great pride in her service as she looks back on every photo and letter from her special day, as she keeps each moment fresh in her mind.

The power of words and photos

When Frank Akin arrived home from a jam-packed day visiting Washington, D.C., with Honor Flight Chicago, he was not empty-handed. The 85-year-old former Air Force Airman 1st Class returned with a packet filled with dozens of letters of gratitude for him and his service.

Akin served in the Air Force with his wife, Miljan, during the Korean War. In September of 2016, they flew with Honor Flight Chicago to visit the memorials in Washington, D.C. Waiting crowds were overjoyed to see a veteran couple being honored.

“Everybody was floored,” Frank Akin said. “They always wanted to shake our hands and take pictures of us.”

Akin spent the day reminiscing about the past with fellow veterans, while also making new memories. He got the chance to visit several war memorials and watch a rifle demonstration in the afternoon. During a ceremony at the World War II Memorial honoring all the Honor Flight Chicago veterans, Akin proudly carried a flag with the Honor Guard. After a dinner and some dancing, Akin got on the plane back to Chicago.

He was in for another memory-making moment: Mail Call.

Envelopes were passed around the airplane, one for each veteran onboard. Akin opened his and found a pile of letters from family and friends who wrote their appreciation and thanks for his service and dedication.

The Akins excitedly met their son and daughter in the cheering crowd at Midway Airport. They were ready to go home, but the memories from the day weren’t over. Weeks later, the couple received a photo album in the mail, sent by Miljan’s Guardian, as well as many other pictures from the flight. Akin still showcases photographic evidence of the day whenever he can.

“We got all kinds of pictures,” Akin said. “I took them to show the father at church. I took them when I went to see my doctor. He saw all the pictures.”

The photos are precious to Akin, as are the Mail Call letters he received. The pictures, though, are all that’s left in his possession. He decided the letters would be more impactful in someone else’s hands.

“I gave all of mine to my daughter,” Akin said. “That’ll be something she can remember me by when I’m gone.”

A transformational experience

When Anthony Repeta arrived at Midway Airport in the early hours of May 11, 2016, he didn’t feel all that special. He was just a “sleepy old Navy veteran” on his way to Washington, D.C.

As he sat alongside roughly 100 other veterans at their flight gate, Repeta was kept awake by a trio performing as the Andrews sisters. The music brought back memories. Repeta was in active duty during the Korean War from 1954-56. He never saw combat, so he’s always had mixed feelings about being called a hero.

“I was a [serviceman] during the Korean War, but I didn’t come back with any wounds,” Repeta said. “I crossed the Atlantic six times in an escort carrier carrying planes over to the NATO countries.”

The 81-year-old spent the next few hours getting to know his Honor Flight Chicago Guardian — a petty officer first class — as they flew to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorials built to honor the service of men like Repeta. He had visited the Korean War Memorial before, but seeing the metal poncho-clad soldiers standing resolute amidst the day’s rain struck a powerful chord for Repeta. He could almost see the men trudging through South Korea’s countryside as he looked at the memorial.

“It was raining that day, and that made it much more real,” Repeta said. “You have these guys walking through the field in their metal ponchos – that was the setting they were dressed to walk in.”

Repeta’s return to Midway was unlike anything he ever experienced before. Thousands of people shouted and smiled at him as they thanked him for his service. Repeta was surprised to look into the crowd and see his own family proudly cheering for him — as a husband, as a father, as a grandfather — as he came home.

The mixed feelings he had battled that morning were gone. He now believed he was a hero.

Repeta felt so empowered by the day that he immediately set out to help other veterans receive their honor.

“The first thing I did when I came home is I called my brother-in-law, a World War II veteran, and told him that he should sign up and go,” Repeta said. “He did that, and of course we shared our common experience!”

Watching the pain slip away

Joseph Yi was born in South Korea but moved to the United States when he was 10 years old. When the Korean War broke out, Yi volunteered to support and serve the U.S. A private first class in the Marine Corps, Yi played a key role for the U.S. during prisoner exchange between the two sides.

Despite his importance, when the war ended, Yi was never recognized. The pain stayed with him for more than 60 years.

Then, on Sept. 7, 2016, Yi received his day of honor and a flight to Washington, D.C., with Honor Flight Chicago. His son-in-law encouraged him to participate, and the 86-year-old is so grateful that he did.

“It was a tremendous day,” Yi said, “probably one of the best days of my life.”

Yi visited a collection of memorials that day, including the Marine Corps Memorial, built to honor him and his comrades. He enjoyed spending quality time with other veterans that day, and the experience was extra special because his son served as his Guardian.

On the return flight to Chicago, Yi was surprised by Mail Call. He read letters from his family, friends, and even people he didn’t know. He kept the letters and still rereads them from time to time. They help him remember precious moments from his day.

One moment forever ingrained in his memory, though, is the celebration that awaited him and his fellow veterans when they arrived back at Chicago’s Midway Airport. Thousands of people welcomed Yi home, cheered for him and thanked him for his service.

It was the recognition he deserved, but never received.

Yi lived with the disappointment of not being recognized for more than 60 years, but on that September evening – as men, women and children of all ages shook his hand and said thank you – the agony and discouragement began to slip away.