By Jonathan Kramer-Roach
I’m 23 years old. People my age don’t usually spend a full day with 87-year-olds, but that is exactly what I did earlier this month. And you know what? It was one of the most inspirational days of my life.
First, a bit of background. I’ve worked in the Honor Flight Chicago office for a little more than a year. I help CEO and Co-Founder Mary Pettinato with everything from logistics to data entry, and a whole lot in between. I’ve always been moved by the mission of the organization, but up until this month, I had never experienced a flight to D.C. with our senior war heroes. I had been to several Welcome Home celebrations, which are powerful in their own right, but I was hoping to one day get the chance to take in an entire day alongside roughly 100 World War II and Korean War veterans.
On May 9, 2018, I got my chance.
I had the privilege to serve as Guardian for Korean War veteran Edvins T. Budenieks. Ed grew up in Latvia in the 1940s. His homeland was invaded by Russians. Then by the Nazis. Then by Russians again. It was 1949 when 20-year-old Ed and his family immigrated to the United States. They ended up in Mississippi, where he took on a variety of jobs, from picking cotton to greasing tractors. Eighteen months later, he was married. The month after that, he was in the U.S. Army.
Ed served from Feb. 1950 to Sept. 1952 with the 24th Infantry Division, and he spent nine months on the frontline in Korea.
I read a profile of Ed prior to meeting him, but I didn’t really know what to expect out of the day. I thought the overall mood of the day would be relatively somber, and I had a feeling we’d be spending a lot of time talking through the itinerary of the day and the specific sights we’d be visiting.
I discovered that while Ed enjoyed all of the memorials, for him, the day was much more about camaraderie. He and his fellow veterans were cracking jokes with one another throughout the day. It was clear that he was interested in talking with other veterans. And he wasn’t the only one.
I was blown away by the sheer number of bystanders who came up to Ed and the other veterans to thank them for their service. To see this mix of people — from all walks of life — come together and thank these heroes was truly inspiring.
“I was blown away by the sheer number of bystanders who came up to Ed and the other veterans to thank them for their service.”
One of my favorite moments came in the mid afternoon as I was trying to buy Ed a 24th Infantry Division patch. I insisted that he didn’t pay, but he didn’t like that. He kept asking me how much the patch costed, but I said it was my small gift for him. He finally gave in, but then he said he wanted to buy me an ice cream in exchange.
As we went back and forth, a D.C. businessman waiting for an Uber saw what happened. He put down his cell phone, walked over to us and said he wanted to pay for Ed’s patch and my ice cream. Before we could protest, the man paid for both, thanked Ed for his service and drove off.
It was such a cool moment, one that I won’t soon forget.
My best memories, though, came during the downtime of the day — the flights to and from D.C., the bus rides from memorial to memorial. We talked about Ed’s childhood, his family, his career, his travels with his wife. I was able to get to know him at a far deeper level than the average person I interact with on a day-to-day basis.
When I said goodbye to Ed after he went through his Welcome Home at Midway, I thanked him for his service, but more than that, I thanked him for sharing his stories with me and for being an inspiration. When I talk with people my age, they often don’t have the life experiences and frame of reference to help envision what our futures could look like. Ed was different, though. He showed me the power of courage and resilience, of optimism and appreciation.
I’m a better person because of Edvins T. Budenieks.
“When I said goodbye to Ed after he went through his Welcome Home at Midway, I thanked him for his service, but more than that, I thanked him for sharing his stories with me and for being an inspiration.”