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Honor Flight gives Elmhurst WWII veterans experience they'll never forget

Aaron Gedz, 20, accompanied his grandmother, Fae Gedz of Elmhurst, a World War II Army veteran, during her Honor Flight in August to Washington D.C. (Photo provided)
Aaron Gedz, 20, accompanied his grandmother, Fae Gedz of Elmhurst, a World War II Army veteran, during her Honor Flight in August to Washington D.C. (Photo provided)

ELMHURST – When Fae Gedz, who served in the Army during World War II, heard she could participate in a special tribute for her service called Honor Flight Chicago, she took a lot of convincing to sign up.

“Honestly, I didn’t even want to go on it,” said Gedz, who participated in an August flight. “I felt that I didn’t do anything spectacular to be honored in such a way.”

Gedz’s fellow veterans at Park Place in Elmhurst share her humility about serving the country during World War II.

“I guess that’s the way we all felt,” said Len Sytsma, who served in the U.S. Air Force. “We did a minor part in a war.”

The handful of veterans at Park Place who have taken an Honor Flight also agree it was an experience they’ll never forget.

Honor Flight Chicago flies World War II veterans to Washington D.C. for a special day of tribute. Veterans visit the National World War II Memorial and other monuments and museums in the nation’s capitol. While the experience is a meticulously scheduled operation that begins before sunrise with an early flight, the little details defined so much of the experience.

“We were at Midway Airport,” said Thomas Myers, a U.S. Navy veteran. “They had these genuine, imitation Andrews Sisters there, and they did a terrific job. They sang all the World War II songs.”

Each veteran also receives a bundle of letters from family, friends and sometimes strangers during mail call. A group of school teachers heard that Wallace Sandberg, an Air Force veteran, would be taking an Honor Flight and made a class project out of the event.

“So I have 64 letters from the kids,” Sandberg said.

Mail call wasn’t a surprise to Myers. He’d seen videos of veterans on Honor Flights on television, but the emotions he felt during the experience caught him off guard.

“Watching it is one thing, being involved is something else,” Myers said.

A guardian accompanies each veteran or pair of veterans. The privilege to assist the service men and women is determined through an application process. While the trip is free to veterans, guardians each pay $498 for the opportunity.

Sytsma met his guardian for the first time the day of his flight, but the two have built close relationship through the experience.

“I get emails from her all the time,” said Sytsma. “I know her family just like I know mine.”

Gedz paid for her grandson, 20-year-old Aaron Gedz, to accompany her as a guardian. The image of Civil War veterans in their coats and hats is a memory she’s cherished since childhood. She wanted to share a similar memory with her grandson.

“The experience of being with all the veterans, I think that is something he will always remember,” Fae Gedz said.

After a long day of tours and traveling, the veterans return from Honor Flight to a crowd of thousands of people welcoming them home at the airport.

Family members, friends and Scout Troops shout out expressions of gratitude to each veteran while a military escort leads them from the plane.

U.S. Navy veteran Bob Van Zandbergen’s departing and return flight were both delayed.

“We not only left late, we got back late so all these people waited forever to see us,” Van Zandbergen said.

It was a welcome most World War II veterans never experienced. Sytsma remembers getting on a train after his service ended and going home without any big to do.

The idea that so many people came together to honor him created an emotional experience for Sytsma.

“It was emotional because of itself, not because it brought back any memories that made it emotional,” said Sandberg who added the experience was hard to describe.

Sitting around a table at Park Place, the veterans agreed Honor Flight was an experience they will never forget just like most of the memories from their service.

“My favorite remembrance that I’ll never forget is that I went into Tokyo Bay when they did the surrender,” Van Zandbergen said.

Fae Gedz remembers most the people she met from around the world. She stayed in contact with families who invited her into their homes in Italy and France through letters for years after she returned stateside.

The group of veterans were also impressed with how well-organized the trip was and appreciated the amount of behind-the-scenes work that must go into each trip.

“Nobody took credit for anything, and that was the most unusual thing,” Sandberg said.

While Honor Flight Chicago estimates there are 25,000 World War II veterans in the Chicago area, Sandberg believes everyone should put in a year of service to the country.

“Why isn’t everybody a veteran?” said Sandberg. “It’s a service, and they might learn something, too.”

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