Back in the 1950s, three friends boarded planes and ships to serve in the Korean War. More than six decades later, the Mount Prospect residents will catch another flight this week, this one together and through Honor Flight Chicago, for a day of remembering and honoring veterans' service.
Since 2000, Lee Jensen, Fred Meyer and John Volpe have been meeting every Thursday at Panera Bread in Randhurst Village to talk about the past, what their children and grandchildren are up to and, most importantly, to poke fun at each other.
The group of friends, which also includes Bob Placek of Rolling Meadows and Bob Skowron of Arlington Heights, has known each other since attending Foreman High School in Chicago in the 1940s.
"We never really left each other," Volpe, 84, said. "We may not have been physically together, but since we graduated from Foreman High School, moved out here, raised our kids, we weren't selfish by hiding from each other."
"It's something I look forward to every week in retirement," Meyer, 85, said. "To have that friendship and sit around and banter."
The topic of conversation last Thursday was Jensen, Meyer and Volpe's upcoming Honor Flight trip this Wednesday to the nation's capital. Placek joined the Korean War effort in late 1955, past Honor Flight Chicago's cutoff date, and Skowron is responsible for taking care of his wife, who has Alzheimer's.
"It's going to be a great experience, something we're all looking forward to," Jensen, 85, said.
After they graduated in 1950, each man was involved in the war in some way. Meyer was stationed in Alaska as an Air Force liaison officer, while Volpe traveled around the country to various bases as a member of the military police. Jensen was in Busan, South Korea, as an administrative specialist, and he said his time there opened his eyes to the world around him.
"It amazed me how ancient that country is and how poor. It was really sad to see these kids who didn't have anything," he said. "It made me grateful to be an American. There's so much that we take for granted, and we don't realize what other people are going through."
None of the men thought tension between North Korea and South Korea would still be a topic 60 years later.
"It sounds like they're itching to get back to war again, which doesn't make me happy," Meyer said about the North Koreans.
"It's very serious now; people are all brainwashed, and it's a really evil regime," Jensen said. "I don't know how we'll resolve this problem."
When they returned home, Jensen worked for an electrical company, Meyer worked at an accounting firm and later was the Wheeling Township school treasurer, and Volpe was a deputy sheriff.
The Thursday morning Panera routine began after Jensen ran into Placek at a restaurant and they started reaching out to others.
With a history that stretches back to the 1940s, the three men could not imagine better company for the Honor Flight.
Veterans who have been on the trip "describe it as the second best day of their life -- second to marrying their wife or coming home alive from war," said Mary Pettinato, CEO and co-founder of Honor Flight Chicago.
The veterans will arrive at 4 a.m. Wednesday at Midway Airport, and when they land at Dulles Airport in Washington, more than 100 volunteers will greet and thank them for their service. They will see the Air Force Honor Guard Drill Team, go to the Air Force, Marine Corps, World War II and Korean War memorials, and get a tour of the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center, which houses the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
On the return trip, veterans are given one final surprise before they arrive in Chicago, where their families rally to welcome them home.
"Veterans call after and tell us the trip changed the way they view themselves, the way their children and grandchild view them," Pettinato said. "One veteran wrote, 'I arrived in the airport in the early morning as a sleepy, old, grumpy Navy veteran. I returned home that night an American hero.'"
Honor Flight Chicago was founded in 2008 and has flown more than 7,000 World War II and Korean War veterans to Washington. Every month from April to October, it flies one flight with more than 100 veterans, with an average age of 87.
"A lot of guys didn't make it back and those are the guys we are saluting," Volpe said.
Veterans can go on an Honor Flight once. For more information or to send an application, visit honorflightchicago.org or call (773) 227-8387.
Will Jensen, Meyer and Volpe make it for their usual Thursday coffee get-together the following day?
"We'll be here if we can stay awake," Volpe said.