Group Taking 70 More Veterans To WWII Memorial
August 21, 2013 — TheStatehouseFile.com
INDIANAPOLIS – For Al Barker, 88, closure came on the day a group of volunteers flew him to Washington D.C. to see the National World War II Memorial.
It was just this past April, nearly seven decades after the war ended, and Barker was part of a group of 70 veterans from across Indiana taking part in an Indy Honor Flight, an effort to take former soldiers to see the memorial created in their honor.
“The day we spent couldn’t have been better,” Barker said.
Next month, another 70 veterans will head to Washington D.C. on another Indy Honor Flight, which aims to take as many World War II veterans as possible to the memorial before they’re gone.
Most of the veterans are in their 80s and 90s and – since the memorial wasn’t dedicated until 2004 – many have never had a chance to see it.
Since its formation three years ago, the Indy Honor Flight – part of a larger network of groups – has taken 150 veterans to Washington D.C., with the next trip planned for Sept. 7.
Each chartered flight holds about 150 people, including 70 veterans and 70 guardians. Guardians are volunteers who go on the trips to serve as mentors. Each veteran is matched with a guardian to help them with any needs they may have. In addition, medical personnel are on board should an emergency arise.
John Cimasko, better known by his radio name “Jersey Johnny,” sits on the board of directors for Indy Honor Flight. Cimasko has been active with the group since its Indianapolis chapter opened a few years ago. Since then he has been on two honor flights serving as a guardian and is preparing for his third.
Cimasko, the son of a World War II veteran and nephew of a soldier who died in war, said most veterans came home from the war and put “their army stuff away and lived their lives.”
“It was no big deal to them. They got a job, they got a wife, a dog, a house, mowed the lawn, and went on with life. They didn’t ask for anything,” he said. “I think that it’s important again that we always remember what they did. They went halfway across the world to save the world. And that’s no small task.”
A typical Indy Honor Flight trip begins in the wee hours of the morning when veterans and guardians board a charted flight bound for D.C. While there, the group visits the WWII memorial, the Arlington Cemetery, and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where they lay a wreath from the Indy Honor Flight.
Gene Taylor is a veteran who has traveled with the group. While in D.C., his guardian was Cimasko and the two still keep in touch. Taylor had nothing but good things to say about his trip.
“It was one of the nicest days of my life,” Taylor said. “I was surprised. It was the most beautiful monument I’ve ever seen and it was a fantastic day. A very tiring day but worth it.”
On the flight home, veterans are presented with letters written to them by family, friends, and local school children to thank them for their service. Cimasko said that’s usually a surprise to the vets and one of the more emotional parts of the trip. Taylor said he received a total of 84 letters.
“These men and women can never be paid back for what they did but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to pay them back in some way,” said Cimasko.” “I am not a veteran but I realize more and more that it’s up to people like me to show our appreciation to those who are veterans.”
The surprises aren’t over however. When the plane touches down in Indianapolis, the veterans are treated to a true homecoming party with family, friends, and sometimes even strangers greeting them at the airport with cheers and signs. For some of the veterans, it’s the only homecoming they’ve ever gotten.
“I had expected my son and wife to be there to take me home but my whole family was there,” Taylor said. “It was quite a surprise. I was in New Guinea the day the war ended so we did not have a homecoming celebration so to speak. This was my day.”
Barker said he also enjoyed his trip. After joining the service when he was just 18, he was shot and taken prisoner by the Germans.
For nearly 30 years he couldn’t talk about the war. Then, while in Europe on business, he decided to rent a car and drive around Germany. It was then he found forgiveness. Now at the age of 88, he has found the last piece of closure by visiting the WWII Memorial.
“I think it’s unusually well managed,” Barker said. “It was a wonderful day – very full and so well done.”
Photo: Al Barker poses with a photo provided to him by members of the Indy Honor Flight, a group that takes veterans to see the National World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. Photo provided by John Cimasko.