Parkinson's doesn't stop Lindenhurst veteran from serving others
Depending on the day, Vietnam veteran Paul Baumunk can lose his voice by late afternoon. Or worse. A few weeks ago, his vocal chords froze and he couldn't breathe.
About three years ago, the longtime Lindenhurst resident and former mayor was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease due to exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange when he served in the Army.
"The most important thing is to learn how to deal with it," says Baumunk. "I'm not letting it beat me down."
Despite the progressive effects, Baumunk hasn't let his situation define him or weaken his commitment to fellow veterans.
"He's always involved," says Andrew Tangen, superintendent of the Veterans Assistance Commission of Lake County. "He works nonstop for vets."
Part of Baumunk's work as a director on the VAC's executive board is to help fellow vets find benefits they may not know they had coming or are too stubborn to pursue.
But he also uses his experiences and lessons learned to soothe and persuade reluctant passengers to board the Lake County Honor Flight. The nonprofit takes veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials dedicated to their service and sacrifice.
"He's someone in the community a lot of people look up to," says Paula Carballido, president of the nonprofit. "He's got a lot of golden nuggets of wisdom."
Like other vets who don't feel deserving, Baumunk resisted taking the Honor Flight until 2018. The experience, he said, intensified his commitment.
That again will be on display in a few weeks on Memorial Day during the ceremony at the Lindenhurst Veterans Memorial.
Baumunk said fellow veteran, friend and longtime village Trustee Patrick Dunham will be at his side to pinch hit in case his voice gives out.
"He's very involved, very active (and) very outspoken about vets issues," Dunham said. "Everybody knows Paul. Everybody loves Paul."
Baumunk started the first VFW Post in Lindenhurst, which eventually closed due to lack of membership and merged with a post in Lake Villa.
He was a force in establishing and planning the veterans memorial and has served as chairman since its inception.
Every year since the ceremonial groundbreaking on Memorial Day in 2006, Baumunk has coordinated and hosted events and been among the speakers.
He says he tries to make gatherings educational as well as inspirational, while addressing issues facing veterans.
"He has a way with words," says village Trustee Dawn Suchy. "It's fun and it holds peoples' attention to where it's not a solemn event but it invigorates people."
Baumunk taught vocational training programs for 31 years before retiring in 2001. He served as mayor from 1991 to 2003 and his informality put people at ease.
"The community knew it -- if the garage door was open, Paul was open for business," he said.
The self-described "Iowa farm boy" has lived in the same house since settling in Lindenhurst in 1977. Known for his outgoing personality and sense of humor, Baumunk also has the ability to reason with people and explain the "why" of an issue.
He holds an observation that he was "ministering to the community" as one of the greatest compliments he has received.
But he also acknowledges it personally took awhile to face and open up about his own experiences. He says he has learned it's OK to cry.
For this year's return to an in-person Memorial Day ceremony, the speakers are arranged, the band is booked, security is in place and a pastor is ready. Two days earlier, he and his wife, Joy, will celebrate their 50th anniversary.
"It's going to be great getting back in person," Baumunk said. "What's going to be great is the hugs you're going to get and they've been piling up. I think this will be a wet-eyed event."
• Do you know of veterans helping other veterans? Share your story at firstname.lastname@example.org.