A Day of Honor

Lansing residents and former residents experience Honor Flight Chicago’s 94th flight

by Melanie Jongsma

Reporter’s note: My father, Allen Jongsma, was on Honor Flight Chicago’s September 18 flight. His experience gave me a family member’s access to the details involved in organizing an Honor Flight.

CHICAGO, Ill. (September 18, 2019) – The 94th Honor Flight left from Midway Airport at 6:30 Wednesday morning carrying 105 veterans from three wars that involved American military:

  • 6 World War II veterans
  • 21 Korean War veterans
  • 78 veterans of the war in Vietnam

One of those World War II veterans is Lansing resident Otha Brownlow. He was accompanied by his brother, I. L. Brownlow, a Chicago resident.

Lansing resident Otha Brownlow, a World War II veteran, was on Honor Flight Chicago this week. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

The Brownlows were both privates in the Army. I. L. stayed stateside and served as a medic. Otha served with the field artillery in Germany and France (postwar) performing guard duty.

The two men were quiet throughout the check-in process, observing the highly organized flow of processing, and perhaps overwhelmed by all the activity. Still, Otha smiled when he found out his hometown newspaper was interested in his Honor Flight experience.

Otha Brownlow smiled when his hometown newspaper sought him out on the morning of Honor Flight. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
Otha’s brother I. L. (left) also participated in the media exposure. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Lansing had a connection to another of the World War II veterans on Honor Flight 94: the oldest veteran of the day was 98-year-old 1st Lieutenant Clelia Ginay. Ginay lives in Schererville, Indiana, but her caregiver, Julie Lyzenga, is a Lansing resident. This was Lyzenga’s first experience with Honor Flight.

Julie Lyzenga (left) is a caregiver for Clelia Ginay. Ginay was a World War II Navy nurse stationed in Jamaica, NY, and attached to an Army base in Fort Eustis, VA. Her story is featured on the Honor Flight Chicago blog. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Two former Lansing residents were also part of the Honor Flight experience: Allen Jongsma (this reporter’s father) and Rev. Joel Nederhood. Jongsma is a Vietnam-era veteran who served stateside as a discharge clerk in the Marine Corps. Nederhood is an Army veteran who served as a field wireman during the Korean War, in the U.S. and Okinawa.

Marine veteran Allen Jongsma (left) and Army veteran Joel Nederhood are both former Lansing residents. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

The 105 veterans on the September 18 flight represented five branches of America’s military:

  • 13 Air Force veterans
  • 66 Army veterans
  • 1 Coast Guard veteran
  • 8 Marine Corps veterans
  • 17 Navy veterans

What is Honor Flight?

The Honor Flight organization is a network of regional “hubs” across the United States, each of which operates independently to provide a day of honor for military veterans. Founded in 2008, Honor Flight Chicago is the largest hub in the network.

The day of honor consists of a flight to Washington, D. C., to tour the war memorials in the company of other veterans and under the attention of an assigned guardian. The one-day, all-expense-paid trip is designed from beginning to end to honor and respect the veterans. It is typically a 16-hour day or more, and, as the Honor Flight Chicago website explains, “[The veterans] are treated as heroes everywhere they go.”

“Thank you for your service,” is the standard greeting throughout the day. Veterans begin arriving at the airport long before sunrise for check-in and processing, which begins at 4:00am. Honor Flight volunteers wear bright orange shirts so they will be easily accessible by the veterans. Each veteran is given a “chair with wheels,” to make it easier to shuttle them all through the process. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Any veteran can apply for Honor Flight, and priority is given to World War II survivors and other veterans who may be terminally ill. The 2019 season, which began in April, was the first time Honor Flight Chicago was able to accept veterans from the Vietnam era. Because the Chicago hub is so large, and because Honor Flight Chicago volunteers are so intentional about recruiting veterans to apply for Honor Flight, it is only recently that there has been enough room to begin admitting Vietnam vets.

Jerry Raczak is a Vietnam vet who lives in Chicago. He applied for Honor Flight four years ago because he wanted to “finally get a welcome home,” referring to the protests that often greeted Vietnam vets as they returned from duty overseas. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
Lansing Village Trustee Maureen Grady-Perovich (left) is an Honor Flight volunteer. She works closely with Lansing’s American Legion Post 697 and a network of veteran organizations to encourage all veterans to apply for Honor Flight. Here she waits for fellow volunteer Ellen Walsh to explain the name badge and documentation before ushering Allen Jongsma to the next step in processing. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Attention to detail

The attention to detail is impressive. Approximately five weeks before the flight, each veteran receives a letter that begins, “We are honored that you are joining us on Wednesday, September 18, 2019, for your Honor Flight!” Each veteran is assigned an ambassador, who communicates via phone and email everything the veteran and his family will need to know about the big day. Two days before the flight, the ambassador calls each veteran to thank him for his service again, to address any last-minute anxieties, and to wish him a good trip. With 105 veterans on a typical flight, the amount of communication handled by Honor Flight ambassadors is extraordinary.

Beyond handling the basic administrative details, Honor Flight works hard to facilitate connections between the veterans on any given trip. In Chicago, the veterans are divided into five groups—red, blue, white, green, gold—and assigned colored lanyards to represent the bus they will be transported on throughout their day in D.C. Volunteers try to keep veterans who live geographically close to each other in the same color group, so they can build connections and potentially keep in contact after their flight. They even give each veteran a supply of simple “business cards” with their home address, phone, email, and service information, so as they make friends, the vets can easily exchange information without having to look for a pen or fumble with their phone’s address app.

After all 105 veterans are checked into the Honor Flight “Processing” system, they are lined up for “Deployment,” and the Transportation Security Administration gets them ready for boarding. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
Before actually boarding the plane, the veterans are welcomed to the “Mess Hall,” where they can enjoy coffee and donuts. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
The donuts are provided by Doughs Guys Bakery in Palos Heights and Crestwood, Illinois. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Entertainment, camaraderie, and media

Helping to set the mood for the day, a duo known as Sweet Reminder provides entertainment for the veterans as they wait for boarding. For many years, Honor Flight Chicago was flying only World War II veterans, so Sweet Reminder focused on songs from the Andrews Sisters—with “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” a particular favorite. For Honor Flight Chicago #94, however, they acknowledged the veterans from three different wars, and performed hits from the 1940s but also the 50s and 60s. They channeled the McGuire Sisters to sing “Sincerely,” a 1950s love song:

During their rendition of the Armed Forces Medley, the duo had veterans from each military branch stand as their song was sung, and they made a point of wending through the audience to shake hands and thank each standing vet.

Allen Jongsma stood during the Marines’ Hymn, and Sweet Reminder came over to shake his hand. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Honor Flight Chicago schedules flights once a month from April through October each year. Media access is granted by the Chicago Department of Aviation for three of those flights. As Director of Media Relations, Karen Pride chooses the flights by working closely with Honor Flight personnel. She then alerts Chicago media and provides instructions as well as an escort through security.

Karen Pride (right) invited media outlets to cover the September 18 Honor Flight. Although the flight included a female World War II veteran, two African-American brothers who are World War II vets, and an African-American female Vietnam veteran, only The Lansing Journal and ABC7 accepted the invitation. ABC7 cameraman Dave Knickerbocker (left) spent about an hour filming, and his footage appeared on the news later that evening. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
Army veteran Esther Gleaton (left) served from 1968 to 1969 in Vietnam. She remained in the active reserves for 23 years, working a variety of jobs, including truck driver, cook, and supply sergeant. Gleaton’s story is featured on the Honor Flight Chicago blog. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Boarding

Just before sunrise the plane was ready to board. Honor Flight instructed veterans with physical limitations to begin boarding first, followed by the rest.

ABC7 cameraman Dave Knickerbocker grabs some footage of the veterans boarding their flight. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
Joel Nederhood and Allen Jongsma wave goodbye. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
Lansing’s Otha Brownlow offers one more quiet smile before boarding the plane. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

In D.C.

Every veteran is assigned a guardian. Some guardians are already with their vets at check-in in Chicago, but most are stationed in the Washington D.C. area and are waiting for their vets when the plane lands. Some guardians have a medical background and assist veterans whose health might make participation difficult. (In addition, three or four nurses ride each of the five buses, ready to address any medical needs.) For healthier, more active veterans, the guardians are simply available in a role similar to personal assistant—they ensure the vets stay hydrated throughout a day of walking, and they provide information about each of the sites visited.

Mark Brickell (left) served as Allen Jongsma’s guardian throughout his day in D.C. Brickell is also a former marine, so the two men bonded over that common background. (Selfie by Mark Brickell)
Honor Flight guardians can also serve as photographers at each of the sites visited. (Photo: Mark Brickell, Honor Flight guardian)

The veterans are treated as VIPs throughout the day, and a police escort accompanies them from site to site. Only the president receives similar accommodation as he travels through the city.

Welcome home

Honor Flight Ambassadors provide detailed information to family members about welcoming their veterans home from their day of honor. Because construction at Midway International Airport currently limits the space available, families are asked to bring only four guests to the Welcome Home. They are encouraged to wear red, white, and blue, and to create posters welcoming their veterans.

Anthony Sorrentino’s family was ready for his arrival. Sorrentino is an Air Force veteran from the war in Vietnam. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

All of the guests gather at the south end of the Floor Ticketing Level, and Honor Flight volunteers keep the crowd informed as they receive updates about the flight’s arrival.

A large poster shows two photos of each veteran—a current photo as well as a photo from when the veteran served. These photos were submitted by the families to their ambassadors. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Cadets from Great Lakes Naval Academy serve as escorts for the returning veterans. As the cadets arrive at Midway, the waiting families greet them with cheers:

While the family members are patiently waiting upstairs, the welcome has already begun downstairs. The Navy cadets receive brief instructions from Honor Flight personnel and from their commanding officer. They fall in to formation, sing “Anchors Aweigh” at the top of their lungs, and then march to the gate and line up again. The concourse is already filled with travelers who are waiting for their own flights, and who were unaware that they would be witness to a special interaction between America’s oldest veterans and America’s youngest.

Navy cadets line up to serve as escorts for the Honor Flight veterans who are about to deplane. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
Southwest passengers watch out the windows near Gate B1 as the Chicago Fire Department greets Honor Flight 94 with flashing lights and a water salute from the fire hoses. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Finally, the first veteran deplanes. She is Adeline Lence, a World War II Army veteran from Woodridge, Illinois. Lence is greeted with cheers from the crowd and a salute from her waiting escort, who is an officer of some rank, not a cadet:

Julia Lyzenga, still serving as guardian for Clelia Ginay, was third to deplane:

The crowd cheered, clapped, and whistled for each of the 105 veterans that walked through the doorway, and the level of enthusiasm never diminished. Some of the veterans were overjoyed and waved at the crowd as if greeting old friends. Others were amazed that so many people—complete strangers—would participate in their welcome home. And several were simply overwhelmed with emotion they couldn’t put into words.

Members of a local VFW also participate in welcoming the Honor Flight veterans home. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

The families have been waiting at the far end of the airport for over an hour by this point, yet the energy remains high. Each vet is given a hero’s welcome and reunited with family:

Esther Gleaton receives a hero’s welcome. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
The Brownlow brothers, I.L. (left) and Otha, are joyously welcomed by their grandchildren. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

The power of volunteerism

The work of Honor Flight Chicago is done by more than 1,500 active volunteers and just 2.5 paid staff members. The organization works year-round to accomplish its goal of seven Honor Flights each year, flying once a month from April through October. All vets are welcome, and due to age, WWII and Korean War veterans receive priority selection for the next available flight.

Each flight requires about 1,500 volunteer man-hours before the flight ever gets off the ground.

Every flight costs over $100,000 and is supported completely by donations and fundraising.

The next fundraiser will be hosted at 115 Bourbon Street (3359 W. 115th Street, Merrionette Park, Illinois) on Sunday, November 10, 3:00–7:00pm. Tickets can be purchased and donations can be made at honorflightchicago.org/event/bourbonstreet/

To become an Honor Flight volunteer, visit the list of opportunities on the Honor Flight website:

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10 thoughts on “A Day of Honor”

  1. Melanie:
    Absolutely fantastic coverage of Honor Flight 94! I had no idea of all the work and all the volunteers that are involved in each flight. I’m so glad that Vietnam veterans are finally receiving the gratitude and respect that they deserve!
    Honoring all American veterans and current service members is such a wonderful endeavor, and Honor Flight is s worthy cause that we should all support.
    I had to stop to dry my tears several times while reading this article. Thank you!!

  2. I enjoyed reading the whole article on the Freedom Flight. Thanks for all the coverage for all our well deserved veterans. My husband received his letter in April of 2014, but he had passed away in Jan. So he was never able to make the flight. I know he would have been honored to go. There is usually a benefit hockey game between Chicago Police Dept & FBI sometime in spring. Some of my family members have attended the last 3 years. I don’t remember the name of the arena where this takes place. It’s a fun filled nite & everyone really donates for Veterans to be able to go on the Freedom Flight.

    • Thank you, Lorraine. Your husband’s example is exactly the reason Honor Flight Chicago works so hard to spread the word to our local veterans—and why they give priority to the oldest. It is unfortunate that your husband did not get the chance to go. I appreciate the work that the American Legion and Auxiliary do to make veterans aware of this opportunity.

  3. Melanie,
    Thank you for the coverage of Honor Flight Chicago and the 94th Flight. It is my HONOR to volunteer with Honor Flight Chicago and to recognize our Veterans. Thank you for recognizing Lansing American Legion Post 697 and all they do for the Village of Lansing!

    • Maureen, thank you for all the time and energy you devote to making sure that veterans know about this amazing opportunity—as well as your availability during the days of Honor Flight to help our vets get checked in and processed!

  4. Absolutely great coverage of the Honor Flight. I’m thankful for our veterans and all volunteers associated with the Honor Flights. God Bless 🇺🇸

  5. Melanie,
    Thank you! It was an honor to be in the same row with your father.
    Really nice pictures & video of the veterans. What a great day!
    That is what I call a natural high.
    Your new friend,
    Jerry Raczak

    • Jerry, it was an honor to meet you and hear a little bit of your story! One amazing Welcome Home probably can’t undo the years of disrespect our Vietnam vets faced, but I hope it at least gave you some hope that our cultural understanding has changed. Thank you for your service during a difficult, confusing, unfair time in America’s history. Please forgive us for not expressing our gratitude earlier.

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