Clarkson: Honor Flight welcome home a fabulous experience

I was just one in a huge crowd to greet the return of the 56th Honor Flight Chicago to Midway Airport from Washington, D.C. July 2, and I found the entire experience profoundly moving and completely appropriate to the Fourth of July holiday.

I vaguely knew about Honor Flight Chicago, a nonprofit organization dedicated to honoring as many World War II veterans as possible by flying them gratis to the capital for a day of visiting the World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War and other memorials. I didn’t know that I could participate in any way except by writing a check. When Rose Ann Hoof of King-Bruwaert House community invited me and others to welcome the vets from a returning Honor Flight, I didn’t want to miss the experience.

Rose Ann’s husband, Addison Hoof, went on an flight two years ago, and ever since they usually go to Midway to greet the returning vets. I stood with them last week, and I was impressed with how many people made a point of greeting Addison, acknowledging him and thanking him for his service in World War II.

I arrived more than an hour before the flight was due, and hundreds of people were there including families of the vets and Cub Scout, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. The Frankfort Brass Band, volunteering their time and talents, was warming up. There were balloons and flags everywhere and just about everyone was in some form of red, white and blue.

Barb Barkstrom heads up the volunteer efforts and is a volunteer herself.

“You come here. You see it and you cry,” she said.

About 7:45 p.m., sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Station came in and after 8 p.m. a parade of more than 100 of the motorcycle brigade arrived.

At 9:30 p.m. the flight touched down. Bagpipers from the Chicago Fire and Police began to play and members of various U.S. Military corps in uniform greeted and saluted the veterans as they left the gate area. The veterans were accompanied by an Honor Flight chaperone called a guardian and some had a member of the U.S. Armed Services as well. All of the 91 veterans were men, though there have been a few women in the past. Almost all of them were in wheelchairs. The Frankfurt Brass played “My Country Tis of Thee,” “God Bless America” and other patriotic songs.

After the 25 minutes it took for every veteran to pass by, the remaining uniformed service personnel went through the crowd. Each of those young U.S. military men and women who passed by looked me eye and gave me a firm handshake. I was struck by the contrast of their youth and the veterans incredible age — late 80s and 90s — yet both groups represent the same thing: service to country, service to something far greater than the individual.

Rudy Ondrovic of Burr Ridge was one of the veterans on the flight. Unbeknownst to him many members of his family were gathering in baggage claim as he was flying home. His son-in-law John Ozsvath accompanied Ondrovic as a guardian. Each veteran who goes to Washington is assigned a “guardian” for the day, and that person acts as a companion, valet and personal assistant for the veteran.

Guardians are selected through an intensive interviewing and screening process, and Ozsvath was grateful that he was selected to accompany his father in law. Ozsvath is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and he too was affected by the day. He praised the Honor Flight organization. The veterans, he said, were truly able to enjoy the experience of visiting Washington, D.C. and the memorials to World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, Iwo Jima and Abraham Lincoln as well as the National Air and Space Museum. With the almost faultless planning of the Honor Flight organization and its committed volunteers, Ozsvath said the veterans were able to ignore some of their physical limitations and focus on the day.

“They allowed them the luxury, the time to focus on the experience,” Ozsvath said.

The veterans also enjoyed getting to know one another and talk amongst themselves. For more information, to contribute and/or to volunteer, visit www.honorflightchicago.org.

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