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Article updated: 11/12/2012 1:20 PM

World War II vets want to expand Honor Flights

By Burt Constable

Already a volunteer with the USO that assists our military, Palatine's Jody Kopsky signed up in 2009 to be a guardian on an Honor Flight trip for aging World War II veterans. She accompanied her Navy veteran father, Tom Zimniewicz, who is 90 and still lives in Glenview, on that pilgrimage to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Now Kopsky is president of Honor Flight Chicago, a not-for-profit charity that has provided free flights for 3,903 World War II local veterans since it began in 2008. It's completed 45 flights, and already has booked flights for 2013.

"All you have to do is go on one and then you'll know," Kopsky says in explaining how she got hooked. "Once you go, you get it."

Helen Ehlers of Wheaton still gushes about the Honor Flight trip she took last month and the emotions the memorial stirred in her.

"It takes you back. You almost lose your breath," Ehlers says. "That's just awesome."

Escorted on the trip by former Marine and Honor Flight secretary Read Boeckel, 63, of Glen Ellyn, the 89-year-old grandma's sweet smile gives no clue to a military past that is hard for her five grandchildren to grasp.

"They can't imagine me being a Marine," says Ehlers, whose maiden name is Gural.

A 1941 graduate of Morton High School in Cicero, Ehlers started working in the Western Electric factory while many of her male classmates went off to war.

"That wasn't challenging work for me, and I wanted to do more," Ehlers remembers. "My brother Steve was in the Army, my brother Joe was in the Navy and I decided to be a Marine."

She enlisted in January 1944, with the consent of her widowed father.

"All my friends thought I was stupid," she says, recalling how the factory had just increased her pay. "That didn't deter me. I wanted to be in the military."

The Marines sent her for training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

"Talk about segregation," Ehlers says with a chuckle. "The men were trained separately, and they trained for combat."

The women did receive the physical fitness training and strict discipline demanded of men, but her drill instructor "didn't swear at us," Ehlers says. She landed in another factory job, this time repairing and building instrument panels for fighter planes at the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, N.C.

"I was happy," she says.

She finished her service in 1946, came back to her civilian factory job, married Richard Ehlers, moved to Lisle and became a mother to a daughter, who now lives in St. Charles.

Getting off the plane after her recent trip to D.C., Ehlers was greeted by a crowd at the airport, including a volunteer holding a giant poster with her Marine photo and the message, "Helen, Thank You For Your Service! Semper Fi." The outpouring of gratitude brought tears to the eyes of the widow and always-faithful old Marine.

"For some reason, I just thought the men should go, and I kept putting it off," Ehlers says of her Honor Flight. "I'm glad and grateful I was eligible."

On the daylong journey, she chatted with Bob Banks, a great-grandfather from Glen Ellyn.

"It was just one emotional shock after the other," Banks says of the trip. A frequent traveler with his wife, Stella, the 87-year-old Banks had seen the World War II Memorial, but never like this.

"It was different when you are there with a group of your peers," says Banks, who adds that the trip reminded him of all the benefits he got serving as a hospital apprentice first class in the Navy.

"My tour in the service is what gave me direction for my lifelong career. It extended my life into areas I had never anticipated," notes Banks, now a retired dentist. Born in the small downstate hamlet of Pittsburg as the middle of five children of coal miner Artie Banks and his wife, Ethel, Banks was a student at Crab Orchard High School when he was drafted in the fall of 1943.

"I really wanted to graduate high school first, but they took me right out of my senior year in high school," he recalls.

"My first time anywhere was the train ride from Southern Illinois to Great Lakes," says Banks, who trained at the naval station near North Chicago before spending most of the war in Maryland, where he asked for ship duty but spent all his time on dry land. "It was a wonderful experience, growing up in a small town in Southern Illinois and suddenly you are meeting people all over the United States."

Seeing how much their fellow citizens recognize and thank them for their service makes an impact on the veterans, Kopsky says.

"We do this 10 times a year, and every time we tear up," Kopsky says. "It does it to us, too. It's pretty powerful stuff."

A Marine gunner on the USS Bunker Hill aircraft carrier, Sam Gevirtz of Lake Barrington shot down attacking Japanese planes, saw shipmates killed by bombs and was wounded by shrapnel. The emotional visit to the World War II monument is "hard to describe," says Gevirtz, 88, who spent his career in the shoe business and is now a grandfather of four and great-grandfather to three. "I never thought the kind of things we experienced could foster that kind of tribute."

Kopsky, who has a master's degree in naval warfare, interviews Honor Flight veterans and keeps a collection of comments such as:

"I thought we were ancient history," says Chet Ross of Arlington Heights, who added that everyone agreed the trip "was one of the best days of our lives."

"I can't tell you how I felt. There were hundreds of people wishing us the best," says Ed Kaps of Hinsdale. "All I can say is thank you."

"I still have tears in my eyes," notes Al Zelent of Gurnee. "It was a fantastic day I'll never forget."

Honor Flight volunteers work long hours to make sure the veterans get letters from loved ones and are greeted in D.C. and back home by throngs that include everyone from motorcycle clubs to bagpipers, Kopsky says.

"You're all tired and worn out," she says. "Then you read these flight comments and you are like, 'OK. Let's go!'"

Most of the Honor Flight veterans use a wheelchair for at least part of the trip. Watching them being wheeled through the airport, Kopsky says she sees something else.

"I see 18- and 20-year-olds storming the beaches of Normandy, flying in the skies over Germany and fighting in the jungles of the Philippines," says Kopsky, a stockbroker and vice president of investments at David A. Noyes & Co.

With even the youngest World War II veterans nearing 90, everyone realizes the group dubbed the "Greatest Generation" won't be around much longer.

"Some of the hubs are choosing to carry it on to veterans of Korea and Vietnam," Kopsky says, adding that the local chapter of this nationwide charity hasn't decided what will happen. "We're so focused on trying to get all the World War II veterans."

Those veterans who have been on the Honor Flight trips all say they hope the veterans of Korea, Vietnam and our 21st century wars can receive the appreciation and love given to World War II veterans.

"I'd like to see them do that because the Vietnam veterans have so little recognition, even though they do have a beautiful memorial," Banks says, extending that thought to all of the veterans in wars since he served. "They probably suffer more than any of the World War II guys. Their effort was there, but the honor (expressed on their behalf) wasn't there."

"They all have a story to tell," Gevirtz says.

"As far as Iraq and Afghanistan veterans," Boeckel says, "I pray that when they are in their 80s some organization steps up and takes them to see their memorial."

To find out more about the 2013 trips, sign up a veteran, donate or volunteer, contact Honor Flight Chicago at honorflightchicago.org or phone (773) 227-VETS (8387).

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