State's first all-female honor flight: 'It's about time women are recognized for their service'
Veteran Katherine Haile spent three years in active duty for the Army in the mid-1970s, followed by about a decade in the Army Reserve.
And yet, the 73-year-old Arlington Heights woman said, she never really thought her contribution was worthy of being highlighted with an honor flight.
That changed after she and 92 other veterans took part in a trip last week to Washington during Illinois' first all-women honor flight.
"When I think of my military service, I didn't really see that as something unique," said Haile, whose active-duty role was akin to substance abuse counselor. "After experiencing this, it's kind of like, 'Yeah! That was a unique thing that I did.'"
The veterans ranged in age from 63 to 104 and included two World War II veterans, seven Korean War veterans and 84 Vietnam War veterans.
The daylong trip Wednesday was organized by the group Operation HerStory, started by veteran Ginny Narsete of Lisle, which raised funds for the event and partnered with Honor Flight Chicago and others.
The group flew to the nation's capital on a flight chartered by Southwest Airlines and visited the Military Women's Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Hundreds of similar honor flights from eight hubs across Illinois have taken place over the years, but they have attracted a disproportionate number of male veterans, even accounting for the fact that most veterans are men.
That's because female veterans like Haile and many others didn't think the call to participate in honor flights applied to them.
Haile found out about the all-women flight at an expo in June at the Arlington Heights Senior Center.
"I had heard of honor flight, but I never considered that I would be eligible," said Haile, who went into the civil service and retired in 2014 as director of the substance abuse program for Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia.
"It just never crossed my mind that I could do something like that. You always think of the men."
The country's first officially enlisted woman of any service was Loretta Walsh, who joined the Navy in 1917. But women were allowed to rise to command roles in noncombat units only in 1970 and were granted the right to serve in direct ground combat roles only in 2013, according to history.com
Edwina "Eddy" Mroz, 77, of Glenview, who served for 30 years in the Coast Guard Reserves, also never thought of joining an honor flight, despite the fact that her husband had been on two of them.
Mroz worked in administrative and personnel support and was stationed out of Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit. She did two weeks of active duty per year and drove one weekend per month from the Chicago area to Detroit for eight years.
She had first tried to join the Marine Corps Reserve at Glenview Naval Air Station in 1973, she said, but they weren't taking married women at the time.
Meanwhile, she also worked as a second-grade teacher, antique shop owner and temporary office worker before retiring from working for a life insurance company.
In 2017, Mroz got to accompany her husband on an honor flight after being given special dispensation to be his "guardian" on flight day -- typically not allowed for spouses -- because of her service.
And yet, she hadn't really considered that for herself, she said.
"Maybe it was in the cards that this (Operation HerStory) was coming up. You know how fate is," she said. "I think it's about time that women are recognized for their service."
Wednesday's daylong trip was exhausting, starting with assembly at 4 a.m. at Midway Airport and with the flight returning at almost 9 p.m. But it was all wonderful and absolutely worth it, the suburban veterans said. Each was assigned a guardian and a wheelchair for comfort.
There was a lot of fanfare -- a water cannon salute upon landing, where they were also greeted by a crowd of soldiers, sailors, police officers, firefighters and more; an escorted trip across town, with police temporarily halting traffic to make way for Operation HerStory's multiple buses; priority visits to all the military sites; and a luncheon with speakers like Wilma Vaught, the first woman to be promoted to brigadier general in the Air Force comptroller field.
An emotional moment for Mroz was the stop at the Korean War Memorial.
"My husband was in Korea and he said, 'Would you go visit the Korean War Memorial and say 'hi' to all the guys?'" she said, her voice breaking. "So I did. I said, 'Hey, guys, I'm here, and I am here for Cas.'"
Veteran Edith "Pat" McDonald, 74, of Palatine enlisted at age 17 and served for just over a year in the Marines as a disbursing clerk in the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina.
"I did enjoy it, immensely," she said. "I had great pride in what I was doing and I was just very happy to be there."
Her husband served in the Korean War and was on an honor flight in 2019. Why didn't she go with him? Because she, too, believed it was for men only, she said. But now she's elated to have had the chance for the same experience.
The most emotional moment was the joyous welcome by a crowd of current and retired service members upon the group's return to Chicago, McDonald said. "That was wonderful," she said.
The three suburban veterans also said they relished the camaraderie with other female veterans. Haile loved hearing from the older veterans who served in World War II and the Korean War. Mroz reconnected with two women she socialized with through the Reserve Officers Association decades ago.
All lauded Operation HerStory and Honor Flight Chicago for conducting the whole operation with painstaking attention to detail.
"They just took good care of us. It was wonderful -- I couldn't ask for any more," McDonald said.
"It was fabulous. It was such an organized group. Everything went so smoothly," Mroz said.
Haile agreed. "I was totally blown away by the entire day. How much care they took. Everyone was so upbeat and everyone was so careful," she said.
"It was all about us."