Soaring with Honor
“For a small farm boy from Wisconsin, I’ve been in four foreign lands…the Philippines, Guam, Kuwait and Vietnam,” all with the Army, Jim explains. “The biggest shock was when I was in Vietnam, and how behind the times it seemed. Everything was done by water buffalo,” he says.
Jim worked at the Dubuque Packing Company, a meat packaging facility in Iowa, for many years. Jim’s wife Judith, whom he describes as his best friend, says, “He’s always helping do some kind of church event,” noting that he also served on the volunteer fire department. “Some nights I stayed up all night [firefighting] and then went to work the next morning,” Jim says of his tireless volunteer spirit.
In 2012, he submitted his application for the Honor Flight, a nonprofit organization that transports veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorials created in honor of their service and sacrifices. Four years later, he received word he had a seat on the plane. There are so many people that want to be a part of this experience (Wisconsin has 500 Vietnam Veterans alone) that Jim’s flight Jim on October 22, 2016 was the fifth out of Wisconsin that year. “There were 93 of us on this one!” he exclaims.
Though he isn’t paid or endorsed by the Honor Flight, he believes it’s important for all veterans to participate. “They told us when we went to our first meeting, it doesn’t make any difference where you’re at. One guy was in Arizona, and they flew him to Wisconsin, so he could go,” Jim explains, adding that doctors and nurses are in attendance, with wheelchairs, to make the trip and sites as accessible as possible. “There’s no excuse for people not to go. That’s why I hand out applications, if I catch anyone that hasn’t gone.” From August to October of last year, Jim handed out 10 applications and made sure they were submitted.
Each veteran may bring a guardian on the flight, but it has to be a non-spouse and someone under 70 years of age. Jim chose his daughter, Kim. Why? “She’s the only one of the daughters that hasn’t flown,” Jim said without hesitation, adding that she was a bit nervous about the flight.
The trip can be a huge expense, and that’s where fundraisers and donors come in. The Ho-Chunk Casino, a casino with locations all over Wisconsin, paid for a large amount of the trip Jim went on.
Their extensive Washington, D.C. itinerary included a monument tour, during which the group saw an Honor Flight group from Indiana. “We even made it to the FDR Memorial…because we had a police escort, and [our busses] never stopped at stop signs. If the road was blocked, we drove in the opposite direction lane,” Jim says, noting the time saved by avoiding traffic. They witnessed the changing of the guard in Arlington, and visited the World War II Memorial, where each gold star represents 100 deaths during that war.
Jim, who sought a custodian’s help to locate a particular name, honored a fallen veteran’s family: “When I went to the Vietnam Memorial, I scratched one of the [guy’s names] that was killed from Dickeyville.” He brought the piece of paper home, and gave it to the family of the fallen veteran.
The return flight proved to be emotional as well. Jim received 53 cards from his four daughters, other family, friends, firefighters and fellow parishioners. Did he open them on the plane? “Just a couple. I couldn’t get through them all,” due to emotional impact. Even Jim’s 11 grandchildren wrote him letters. His oldest grandson took a piece of paper, colored it and folded it like the American Flag is folded, in a triangle shape.
Upon landing in Madison, Wis., where they had departed from in the early morning hours of that same day, Jim received a book and postcards, commemorating his trip to DC. But that wasn’t the only surprise awaiting him. “When we came down the escalator, the National Guard was there. They wouldn’t let me carry anything down,” he says. They wanted to give him the royal treatment he deserves as a veteran. More than 5,000 people lined both sides of the walkway. “We walked all the way down through that, shook everyone’s hands. Bucky [the Badger] was there. It was so much different than when I came home from Vietnam to Seattle, Wash.,” Jim says of his arrival home after serving in the Army.
When someone he gave an application to participates in the Honor Flight, Jim might make the hour and a half drive from to Madison to welcome him home: “I’ll just be on the other side of it. I’ll put my hands out, just watch and be a part of it.”
In the meantime, Jim still lends a hand in many ways. When the Catholic school needed help maintaining its building, Jim volunteered as a janitor. When his church needed some trees cut, Jim showed up. He enjoys working on lawn mowers because he wants to have something to show for his time and effort. Jim says, “You have to have purpose and fulfillment in what you do.”
Visit honorflight.org for additional information about the Honor Flight program.
Story by Katlyn Gerken.