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McCaleb: Honor Flight emotional for local veteran, son

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World War II veteran John L. “Jack” Sebesta initially wasn’t sure he wanted to make the trip.

“When I asked him about it, he was like, ‘Eh, I don’t know,’ ” said Sebesta’s son, also named Jack Sebesta.

Now, a couple of weeks after taking the Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., neither father nor son would trade the experience for anything.

“It was phenomenal,” said the younger Sebesta, who is superintendent of facility services at the Crystal Lake Park District. “And it was very emotional.”

(In the interest of clarity, Sebesta the World War II veteran will be referred to as Sebesta Sr., and his son as Sebesta Jr., for the rest of this column, even though they are not a senior and junior.)

Proud of his father, Sebesta Jr. wanted to do something special for him. He had heard from a friend about Honor Flight, a nonprofit organization that celebrates veterans by flying them to Washington, D.C., for a day to visit their memorial and to share past experiences with fellow veterans. Because World War II veterans are in the twilight of their lives, they are Honor Flight’s main focus now.

Pvc. Jack Sebesta Sr. served as a rifleman with the 328th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry Division, part of Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army. He saw action in Czechoslovakia, Germany and Belgium, including at the Battle of the Bulge.

Sebesta Jr. found two Chicago-area chapters that serve local veterans, McHenry Honor Flight and Honor Flight Chicago, and applied for both. Both chapters accepted Sebesta Sr., who agreed to go. For scheduling reasons, the Sebestas chose the Chicago group’s trip. (The McHenry chapter, under the leadership of Randy Granath, does incredible work, but its next scheduled trip conflicted with Sebesta Sr.’s schedule.)

Jack Jr. initially was told that family members could not take the trip with their loved ones. Volunteers, called guardians, accompany the veterans. So Jack Jr. applied to become a guardian. He took a half-day of training and was accepted.

The big day was April 17. A total of 84 veterans made the trip, 82 from World War II and two from the Korean War. Three women were among the veterans on the flight.

On the trip from Chicago Midway Airport to Dulles in Washington, D.C., Sebesta Jr. was assigned to veteran Bob White. White also was a rifleman and was shot in the knee when crossing the Rhine River.

“He did not lose his leg,” Sebesta Jr. said of White, who now lives with his son in Naperville. “He is one of the nicest men I’ve ever met.”

When the flight arrived in D.C., another guardian was waiting to escort White, and Sebesta Jr. got to spend the day with his father.

The group first toured the Iwo Jima Memorial, officially known as the Marine Corps War Memorial, outside of Arlington National Cemetery. Next came the Air Force Memorial, followed by the World War II Memorial.

That’s when the emotions started to come out.

“This is where I start crying,” Sebesta Jr. said. “The memorials are great. They need to have these things to let future generations know what went on. But what is really special about this is the people. The respect and the honor and just the way they treated these veterans.

“There were about 2,000 people in the memorial. There was not a person in the place who did not stop and watch what is going on, understanding what these veterans did for us. The respect that was shown to these people was amazing.”

Sebesta warned me that he would tear up when recounting the story.

“What struck me about dad was, everywhere but the WWII memorial, he was taking everything in. When he was having these conversations with these other vets, the look in his eyes was ...” Sebesta Jr. paused. “I’m trying to think of the word to say ... Dad’s not a person who shows a lot of emotion, but when he was having these conversations, remembering the people he had been with ...”

It took a moment for Sebesta Jr. to relate the story of one of his father’s fellow service members, a man named Churchill, who is now deceased.

“He was wishing that Churchill could be there to see this, to see the respect they had earned,” Sebesta Jr. said.

After tours of the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Wall, Korean Memorial and the National Air and Space Museum, it was time to head back to Chicago. On the flight back, they held a mail call, similar to the mail calls from their service days. Each of the veterans received a stack of letters from family, friends and others.

“My daughter is a teacher in Naperville, and some of her schoolkids wrote letters,” Sebesta Jr. said. “He’s still reading them.”

When the group got back to Midway, Chicago Fire Department personnel greeted the veterans as soon as they got off the plane, put them in wheelchairs (even if they didn’t need one), and wheeled them through the gate. Active-duty military members took over from there, and wheeled the veterans out of the boarding area to a place where they were greeted by a military band, bagpipers and others celebrating their return.

“Everyone who was there, to take a flight, drop someone off, whatever, they were watching, paying their respects,” Sebesta Jr. said. “He [Sebesta Sr.] couldn’t believe how much everyone honored them. I can’t even describe the emotion of the moment.”

Needless to say, both Sebestas were elated that they went.

“He absolutely loved it,” Sebesta Jr. said of his father, who now is in Europe on a trip with fellow 26th Infantry veterans and was unavailable to talk about his experience.

Another special thing about these Honor Flights is that they are free for the veterans, so fundraising is crucial.

Learn how you can contribute or nominate a veteran to take the trip at veteransnetworkcommittee.com or honorflightchicago.org.

• • •

Helping the homeless: The biggest fundraiser of the year for Pioneer Center for Human Services/PADS programs to help McHenry County’s homeless is this Saturday at Living Waters Church, 1808 Miller Road, Crystal Lake.

During SleepOut for Shelter, teams of area residents get sponsorships to spend the night outdoors in makeshift shelters. There will be live bands, storytelling, food and tons of other fun activities. My family and I will be there for much of the evening hours.

Pioneer/PADS provides assistance to the area’s homeless during the day and coordinates with several churches throughout the county to operate rotating nighttime shelters during the colder months of the year. Hundreds of thousands of dollars need to be raised each year to operate these programs.

To join SleepOut, sponsor a team or simply to donate, visit pioneercenter.org, scroll down to events, and click on the SleepOut link. Every little bit helps.

• • •

Speak out: Beginning May 13, we’re going to try out a new system for commenting on stories at NWHerald.com. The new system will allow commenters to respond directly to a specific comment on a thread, and will allow users to better police the comments area themselves. It will require commenters to reregister. More details to come.

• • •

McHenry County lost a great one last week with the death of historian and journalist Don Peasley at the age of 90. For nearly 70 years, Peasley chronicled the news and events that shaped our fine county.

Even in his later years, he stayed true to his passions, writing weekly columns for the Northwest Herald and reporting on the events that mattered to him.

We at the Northwest Herald send our condolences to Peasley’s family and friends. He will be missed.

• Dan McCaleb of Crystal Lake is group editor of Shaw Media’s suburban publications, which include the Northwest Herald. He also is a Pioneer Center board member. He can be reached at 815-526-4603, or by email at dmccaleb@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Dan_McCaleb.

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