Last weekend was emotionally life-changing for me and I will never be the same. Nothing bad happened, but everything beautiful did. I had the opportunity to spend last Saturday and Sunday with 21 Chicagoland veterans on the Lake County Honor Flight #9 in Washington, D.C.
The Lake County Honor Flight (LCHF) is based out of North Chicago, Illinois and is operated by Director, Paula Carballido. Their mission is to transport America’s veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit the monuments and memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifices.
The wonderful thing about the Lake County Honor Flight is that they work hard every day to raise funds so that these trips are available to veterans at no cost, multiple times a year. Most recently, the Legions of Craft Beer Festival, happening at Gurnee Mills on September 16, announced it will donate all their proceeds to the Lake County Honor Flight and the Gurnee American Legion Post 771. They are already busy preparing for their 10th Honor Flight happening in a few months.
The LCHF is entirely volunteer-based. Nobody gets a paycheck, including their director, Carballido. She has a heart of gold and has boundless energy. Her passion for this Honor Flight is insurmountable. She was such a pleasure to be around and couldn’t stop expressing her enthusiasm for our veterans.
Overall, the Lake County Honor Flight was impeccable. Perfectly planned, no detail was left out, and every effort was made to keep our veterans safe. Each veteran was paired up with a “guardian” who accommodated their needs from beginning to end. Whether the veteran needed a push in their wheelchair, wanted a drink of water, needed to get food and more. Some guardians were the veterans’ children or grandchildren, others were friends and some guardians were volunteers and had no personal ties to their veteran.
To keep up with the standards of safety and making sure everyone is present, Honor Flight Trip Coordinator, Stella Jones, frequently led a “sound off.” Each veteran/guardian, staff member and I had a sound off number between 1 – 28. When you heard your number announced, you said “here.” Jones, who donned an amazing red, white and blue, American flag-like sparkly hat throughout the trip was a vivacious, enthusiastic addition to the Honor Flight crew.
When I was selected to embark on this journey with our nation’s service men and women, I was incredibly excited, and a bit nervous. I love traveling, fly frequently and have been to Washington, D.C. before. I thought I knew what I was expecting, but my expectations were greatly exceeded and I changed as a person, forever.
I packed my bags on Friday night, charged my camera batteries, and went to bed. Nights before going on any trips are always hard to get to sleep, because I love going on adventures no matter how near or far. As the quote says, “I travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape me” – Anonymous.
My 10 alarms went off at 2:15 am on Saturday, April 29, I woke up, got ready, and drove to the North Chicago City Hall where the Lake County Honor Flight Send-off was held.
Once there, I was given two pink polos with the Lake County Honor Flight logos on the left chests. I was to wear these for both days, to match with the other lady staff members. I also brought my late grandfather’s dog tags to wear from when he fought in Korea. I never got to know my grandpa, Joseph B. Rominski, as he passed away when I was only three months old. I was lucky enough to learn about him on this trip because two of his former coworkers were two of the veterans.
At the city hall, the veterans’ friends and families were there with signs, American flags and came with plenty of warm wishes on their departure to D.C. There were also lots of police vehicles and motorcycles. It was hard to believe it was only 3:30 am at that point.
When all the veterans, their guardians and LCHF staff were in the motorcoach, the police cars turned on their blue and red lights and what seemed like over one hundred motorcyclists started to lead the way to escort the veterans from North Chicago to the Milwaukee Airport. It was an overwhelming sight to see so many people in our community there to support our veterans and the mission of the Lake County Honor Flight.
Upon arrival to the airport, the veterans were greeted by Southwest Airlines’ representatives. I have to give huge thanks to Southwest Airlines for being so supportive, because they gave all of our veterans free round-trip airline tickets to/from Washington D.C. Our Southwest Airlines’ gate was decorated with patriotic red, white and blue balloons and hearts with messages on them. The USO and Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport staff provided donuts and coffee for the veterans at the gate. The veterans also boarded the plane first, along with their guardians, and had a warm reception by Southwest Airlines’ flight attendance before takeoff. Once we exited the gate, the veterans were greeted on the tarmac with fire truck water cannons on both sides of the plane covering it with water as a symbolic gesture as we moved forward towards departure.
It is extremely touching to see Southwest show their appreciation towards the members of our military, but regular citizens did too. Throughout the Honor Flight, complete strangers would come up to the veterans to give them a handshake thanking them for their service to our country. These appreciation handshakes happened everywhere we went.
Once we landed in the nation’s capitol, at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, the veterans received a rousing round of applause by fellow travelers and members of the Honor Flight program in D.C.
It was incredibly hot on Saturday, it got up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, it was sunny, humid and stagnant. There was very little wind. The Honor Flight took all the precautions to keep our veterans and attendees comfortable, with having plentiful water on-hand and getting into the shade as needed.
The first stop on our Honor Flight was at the US Navy Plaza that took us a while to get to. We were caught off guard and delayed a few hours because of the World Climate March where over 150,000 people descended upon Washington, D.C support of political action to combat climate change. The march closed down streets and our attempted drive from the US Navy Plaza to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, took way too long, we had to bypass that memorial to go to the National World War II Memorial, instead.
Should we have decided to pay for a police escort from memorial to memorial, that would have cost approximately $1,700, that the Honor Flight just didn’t have.
The WWII Memorial was bustling with people, but was so beautiful and serene at the same time. The Honor Flight was given a wreath to take with to all the memorials. There were a few signs posted along the WWII Memorial’s water informing visitors that wading is off-limits out of respect for the memorial, but unfortunately, that didn’t stop several dozen people from putting their feet in the memorial’s water. That made me quite upset.
Next up we walked to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Korea, Lincoln and Vietnam Memorials, with the wreath in tow. There were informational speakers at each memorial. At our final memorial visit of the day, two veterans placed our Lake County Honor Flight wreath in the grass at Vietnam where it was left.
Dana, my high school classmate’s father, Vincent Martorano, was a veteran on this trip. He fought in Vietnam and recalled how unwelcome he felt when he returned home from fighting abroad. He noted that this trip was so special because he finally felt appreciated for his service and sacrifices he made for our country.
Among more conversations had, I met two gentlemen who knew and worked with my late grandpa at the former American Hospital Supply, turned Baxter, in Waukegan. James Cooney from the Navy, who fought in Vietnam, had great things to say about my grandpa Joe. I wish I got to know him, but as mentioned earlier, he died when I was three months old. Another one of his former coworkers, was Gene Mellon who was in the Navy and fought Korea. He remembers my grandfather as being “good at horseshoe” and a good guy. Mellon was unfortunately working with my grandpa the day he died of a heart attack at work. It was truly touching to get to know the grandpa I never got to know through two Lake County Honor Flight veterans. I thank them from the bottom of my heart.
Because of the delay in the World Climate March street closures, we didn’t have time to visit the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial or Iwo Jima. We concluded the day’s memorials sightseeing in the extreme heat and boarded our very amazingly air conditioned motorcoach with cold water and were driven to our dinner that was sponsored and held at the American Legion 177 in Fairfax, Virginia.
The veterans arrived to a thunderous salute and were prepared a delicious buffet dinner. Prior to dinner the American Legion 177 Commander, Jeff White, had a few words and said grace before our meals.
After our bellies were full, we headed to the Fairfax Marriott at Fair Oaks hotel to relax, unwind, and go to bed. You see, most Honor Flight programs are only one day. The veterans fly or drive to D.C., visit their memorials, then head back home the same day. The amazing Lake County Honor Flight makes it a two-day experience so our veterans can rest and enjoy a second day of touring.
The next morning, the hotel fed the veterans and crew a scrumptious breakfast and group photos followed.
We boarded the bus and headed to Arlington National Cemetery to attend a Changing of the Guard Ceremony in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. That was a sight to see. Very profound and as the Arlington National Cemetery’s website states, “The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and in any weather by Tomb Guard sentinels. Sentinels, all volunteers, are considered to be the best of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), headquartered at Fort Myer, Va.”
After the cemetery, we visited the Women In Military Service Memorial. We were lucky to have one female veteran join the Honor Flight #9. We all called her the “Queen,” but her name is really Lorraine Knuth, 96, and she served in the Army during World War II.
Our next stop on the Honor Flight tour was to visit the Iwo Jima Memorial, which we couldn’t see the day prior because of the World Climate March street closure delays. That was an incredibly poignant experience. I had never seen this memorial before and it was so empowering seeing our Marine veterans visiting their Marine Corps War Memorial. It had been a warm 85 degrees that morning, and cloudy, but once we arrived to Iwo Jima, the clouds had parted to reveal clear blue skies.
After leaving Iowa Jima, our drive took us past the Pentagon and we headed to the final tour stop on our second day. That was the Air Force Memorial. The sunny skies lit the silvery Air Force Memorial up as if it were three flashlights pointing upward. In the distance you could see planes landing and departing the airport, so it was very apropos.
It was hard to believe that after the Air Force Memorial, it was time to head to the airport to go home. The whole duration of the trip was about 36-hours and there were so many memories packed into that short amount of time and some lasting friendships that I will cherish forever.
Southwest Airlines was, once again, phenomenal in getting our veterans into the plane first with their guardians and making us all feel so welcomed. They made some announcements throughout the flight and really made the veterans feel special, including the Honor Flight Director, Paula Carballido.
Carballido’s organizational skills are perfect and she thought of so many amazing details to add to the Honor Flight that I wouldn’t have thought about. On the flight home, she gave each veteran and guardian cupcakes from Georgetown Cupcake. That was a pleasant, tasty surprise. You may know of that bakery, because the two owners and fellow sisters, Sophie LaMontagne and Katherine Kallinis, are featured on the TLC reality show, DC Cupcakes.
Months leading up to the Honor Flight, Carballido held a “Mail Call” where she encouraged locals to write a letter or send a card to our veterans for their “Mail Call” bag! The amount of mail she received was so inspiring. Hundreds of letters and cards were sent in for the veterans from their families and friends as well as by churches, synagogues, schools and more. These bags of mail were handed out on the flight to the veterans and it was such an emotional time, for the surprise of it all and the support from the community received via these letters and cards.
After landing in Milwaukee, the veterans were greeted by police officers and motorcyclists holding American flags. A group photo was taken at the airport, and then it was time to get another police car and motorcycle escort to their Welcome Home Ceremony being held at Veterans Memorial Park in North Chicago.
Driving up to the Welcome Home Ceremony location, there were hundreds of people cheering, holding up signs and waving American flags. It was a beautiful sight to see. The veterans were wheeled into the ceremony site by their guardians surrounded by friends, family and military men and women.
An hour-long ceremony commenced where each veteran spoke about their experiences, one by one. Local officials came out to show their support as well including the Mayor of North Chicago, Leon Rockingham, Jr., North Chicago Police Chief Richard Wilson, North Chicago Fire Chief Dell Urban, Senator Terry Link, State Representative Rita Mayfield, State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim and more.
Carballido made several announcements and encouraged donations for future flights. She also mentioned that each trip costs about $20,000 and spoke of the issue of not having enough money to provide a memorial to memorial police escort in D.C., and the fees associated with that. Luckily, two officials, Senator Link and State’s Attorney Nerheim agreed to split the $1,700 cost of the police escort for the next Honor Flight.
The Welcome Home Ceremony concluded, which meant it was time for me to go home. I was driven to the North Chicago City Hall in a police vehicle, got in my car and sat still for a while reflecting on the incredibly amazing weekend I had with the Lake County Honor Flight. I got choked up and tears starting falling down my face.
My Honor Flight experience is one of my top most touching, most emotional moments in my entire life. This weekend that was entirely for the veterans impacted me in such a powerfully positive way, I am a changed person. My heart grew bigger, my appreciation expanded and my memories grew enormously. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity I had to spend time with our heroes, the men and women who fought for our freedoms, who fought for you and who fought for me.
The Lake County Honor Flight program would not be possible without donations. Please consider donating to this cause, no matter how big or small. If you are interested in becoming a guardian for future Honor Flights, you may donate securely and get more details at www.LakeCountyHonorFlight.org.
The Lake County Honor Flight #9 Veterans and (Guardians) are:
- Beckwith, Monty – Vietnam, Marines (Carl Sain)
- Chamberlin, William C. Korea, Army (Laura Lambrecht)
- Conley, Theodore F. – Vietnam, Army (William Conley)
- Cooney, James E. -Vietnam, Navy (Michael Newman)
- Frye, William L. -Korea, Air Force (Teresa Kristensen)
- Greaves, Dennis – Korea, Army (Scott Black)
- Hereth, Robert C. – Korea, Navy (Victor Slana)
- Jones, James R. – Vietnam, Army (Lauri Zenner)
- Knuth, Lorraine – WWII, Army (Charles Knuth)
- Koenig, John H. – Korea, Marines (Connor Black)
- Mantonya, Robert R. – Vietnam, Navy (Jacqueline Slana)
- Martorano, Vincent – Vietnam, Navy (Codi Holst)
- May, Jr., Henry C. – Vietnam, Marines (Jamie Fredericksen)
- Mellon, Eugene – Korea, Navy (James Mellon)
- Oerly, William G. – Vietnam, Air Force (Dennis Oerly)
- Raymond, Dean A. – Korea & Vietnam, Navy (Steve Stams)
- Serra, Orlando – WWII, Navy (Erik Tjarksen)
- Sidinger, Richard E. – Vietnam, Air Force (Brian Sidinger)
- Study, Jr. Robert S. – Korea, Army (Lisa Madden)
- Van Den Bussche, Norman – Korea, Army (Richard Van Den Bussche)
- Wieland, Philip J. – Korea, Marines (Deborah Waszak)
Special thanks to the entire Lake County Honor Flight crew, Paula Carballido, Stella Jones, Nadine Burleson, Jason Houston, Stacey Houston, Dean Aceto, Harold Rollins and Ajoyi Stackhouse.
View all my photos of the Lake County Honor Flight below or HERE.
Photos by Janelle Rominski Photography.