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A once in a lifetime opportunity

SOLON– Bill Zenishek’s day started at 3 a.m. By the time he made it back to the Solon Care Center some 21 hours later, he had been to Washington, D.C. and back; and had seen most if not all of the nation’s war memorials and monuments.
Zenishek was on an Honor Flight, a chartered special taking veterans, primarily from World War II, on the trip of a lifetime.
Born in Cedar Rapids, Zenishek moved to a farm near Solon in 1936. When war broke out, he knew it was only a matter of time before he would be drafted. Figuring the draft would put him into the infantry; he decided to have a little say in his destiny and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He became a supply sergeant and turned 21 in India, before serving at a bomber base in China.
“It was all quite an experience,” he said, recounting some good times, and the unpleasant reality of having air crews shot down or returning to base with members seriously injured or killed.
Their sacrifice, as well as the service and sacrifice of all WWII vets is what led to the creation of the National WWII Memorial, the centerpiece of the Honor Flight experience.
“It’s quite a monument,” Zenishek said, noting it was the group’s first stop in a day which found the vets and their volunteer assistants constantly on the go. Other stops included the Korean War Memorial and the Vietnam War Memorial with its famous wall. He was struck by the Korean Memorial, which only has pictures of the fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines rather than their names.
At the Vietnam Memorial, Zenishek was on a mission to find one man’s name.
Zenishek son Pat served in Vietnam. On a fateful patrol, Pat’s friend tripped a booby trap. The man was killed instantly and Pat was severely wounded, but continues to serve today. “He’s a Marine through and through,” Zenishek said.
His task was to find the man’s name and make a tracing of it, a common occurrence at the Wall. After some initial difficulty, the name was found, and with help from daughter Teresa (who went along as an assistant, or “Guardian” as they are called), he was able to get the tracing.
Other stops included the Lincoln Memorial and Iwo Jima monument.
“They keep you so damn busy,” he said, but added, “every time we turned around, we were getting a sack lunch from Arby’s. They were good!”
At the gate to the Arlington National Cemetery, there was a delay. The curious vets wondered why they were sitting on the bus, which had pulled off to the side of the road. Soon they learned they were waiting for the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a solemn process the group ended up having front row seats to.
“It’s quite precise,” he said, describing the intricate ritual as a solitary soldier patrolling back and forth in front of the tomb is relieved by another. “Everything was spit and polish. It was quite a scene,” he said, calling it “one of the highlights.”
Zenishek’s flight departed from and returned to Waterloo on May 10, one of six “hubs” in Iowa. His flight was made possible by the Sullivan Hartogh Davis Post 730 in Waterloo along with various corporate sponsors. “It was something unbelievable for them to sponsor this,” he said. Flights for the vets are free, while the volunteer guardians have to pay their own way. The return to Waterloo was also special for Zenishek.
“It was unbelievable,” he said of the throngs of people lined up to greet the 80-90 vets, many holding flags. “It just jerked at my heartstrings.”
He was the first vet off the plane and was met by son Pat, in full uniform.
“He saluted me, then he hugged me,” an emotional Zenishek said.
Once back at the Solon Nursing Care Center, a very happy but worn-out Zenishek finally ended his day.
“I think they poured me into bed.” While the trip was hectic and “…hard on an old body,” he said he wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
“I would never have seen those things if not for the flight. I am grateful for the opportunity.” With over a thousand WWII veterans dying every day, the Honor Flight organization is trying to get as many vets to see their memorial as possible. “It’s a wonderful thing they’re doing,” he concluded. “That trip, it was once in a lifetime.”
For more information about the Honor Flight program, go to www.honorflight.org.