By Marianne Walsh
This year’s decision to select Honor Flight Chicago (HFC) as the Grand Marshal for BAPA’s Beverly/Morgan Park Memorial Day Parade on May 29 is one that will resonate strongly with many neighborhood families.
Honor Flight Chicago was founded in 2008 to honor and thank war veterans by providing no-cost flights to the Washington D.C. memorials built in tribute to veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. HFC Board President John Ptak shares that there are 123 Beverly/Morgan Park veterans who have participated in the program to date with 29 area vets currently on the waiting list.
Gary Washburn is just one of thousands of family members touched by HFC. Washburn has lived in Beverly/Morgan Park for 42 years and worked as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune for 35 years. Along with his wife, Arlene, a retired nurse, the couple raised four daughters in the neighborhood.
Washburn details how his father, Bud Washburn, served in the Army Air Force as a B-29 mechanic on Saipan in the Mariana Islands in the South Pacific. Young Washburn marveled at how veterans like his father stoically returned home from war and went back to living their lives and raising their families as if nothing had happened. When his father was selected to participate in an Honor Flight in 2011, Washburn was among the family members and friends who joined in the Welcome Home celebration.
“I decided I wanted to be part of it and have been volunteering ever since. I am one of about 175 volunteers who head to Midway at 3 a.m. on flight days and help the arriving vets process in and get to the gate. We are back at Midway at 7 p.m. before the plane lands. I am also what’s called an ambassador, acting as a liaison for 8 to 10 vets on each flight, answering their questions, ensuring they have transportation to and from Midway and getting their families involved in a couple of surprises for them, including the Welcome Home.”
Washburn describes how fewer WWII veterans have been able to fly over the years, so the organization opened up flights for Korean War and Vietnam veterans. For the Vietnam veterans, there remain many unhealed wounds. When they returned to the United States after serving, many faced hostility and even assault.
“After a flight last year, I talked to a Vietnam vet who said that his experience over the long day did away with 52 years of pent-up frustration since his return home from the war. All of this, along with hearing the stories of the vets and what they experienced, is what makes volunteering a rewarding experience for me,” Washburn said.
There are approximately 950 active HFC Chicago Area volunteers and on May 10 of last year, Honor Flight Chicago operated its 100th flight. On May 10 of this year, the organization will fly its 10,000th veteran to Washington D.C. HFC is a not-for-profit organization that relies on the generous donations of those who support the country’s war veterans. In addition to the flights, HFC has expanded its mission to include education.
President Ptak details the group’s “Operation Education” which started over two years ago as an extension of Honor Flight Chicago.
“Originally, Honor Flight Chicago helped support Veterans Day school celebrations,” Ptak said, “but we now provide year-round resources for teachers and administrators. This includes lesson plans, materials such as our video interviews and various other ways schools can interweave our senior war heroes into their curriculum.”
With more than 200 schools in the Chicagoland area participating, Ptak feels fortunate to have a dedicated group of educators, volunteers and veterans who meet monthly to find ways to connect veterans and students. He said there is “no better way for our youth to learn about courage, determination and history than by connecting with a senior war hero.”
Ptak is delighted to have HFC serving as Grand Marshal at the Memorial Day Parade which will follow the Ridge Run on May 29. He explains that, “leading the parade will be another special way for us to show our appreciation to our veterans for their service and sacrifice as well as recognize the many volunteers in our organization who make our program possible. We are so proud of all the ways that Honor Flight Chicago is now touching the community beyond flight day and this will be a special and impactful morning.”
For more information about this extraordinary organization, or to make a donation or nominate a veteran, visit honorflightchicago.org.
For information on how to participate in BAPA’s Memorial Day Parade, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 773-233-3100.