By Brandi Makuski
In front of more than 1,000 students, staff and community members, Vietnam veteran Ernie Pieske of Stevens Point could barely contain his tears.
“Of the all the veterans here, and they pick me,” Pieske said, as his eyes welled. “I don’t know why.”
Pieske’s reaction upon learning he was going on a future Never Forgotten Honor Flight was a common one, according to Jim Campbell, co-founder of the Wausau-based organization. The group flies veterans from WWII, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War to Washington, D.C. — paid for through donations from the community –to see the memorials built in their honor.
The cost of Pieske’s ticket, along with that of Plover resident Ron Sankey, who also served during Vietnam, was already paid for. Students at P.J. Jacobs Jr. High raised the money via a “penny war” and was part of the school’s birthday celebration. The fundraiser was organized by science teacher Dave Grabski.
“We just felt like this was a great way for the students to participate in some kind of community event, some way to give back,” Grabski said. Last year the school sponsored two local veterans who served during the Korean Conflict.
“This year we selected two Vietnam veterans,” Grabski told the students during an all-school assembly. “You guys raised a thousand dollars to send these two to Washington, D.C.”
The school’s check was presented by P.J. Jacobs students Spencer Wierzba, 14, of Custer, and 13-year-old Maggie Lawrynk of Stevens Point.
Ron Sankey unable to attend, but his son Wayne Sankey represented the family for the event. Pieske was joined by his wife Marilyn and son Russell, who just returned home from serving in Afghanistan. All three veterans received a standing ovation from students.
Campbell told the students their applause was a new experience for any who served in Vietnam.
“You just gave two Vietnam veterans a welcome home they have never received. Never,” said an emotional Campbell, a Vietnam veteran himself. “Our generation never received this kind of welcome when we served. In fact, it was just the opposite; we got spit on, called names. That’s what Honor Flight is all about, to welcome home and honor veterans from Korea, Vietnam and World War II.”
Campbell said thanks to donations like the one from P.J.’s students, the group has flown 22 flights — with 2,004 veterans from Central Wisconsin — to the nation’s capital.
Campbell said the group tries to get older veterans, those who served during WWII, on the flight as soon as possible because nearly half of those war veterans are now gone.
“If it wasn’t for them, we’d all be speaking German or Japanese; these guys weren’t much older than you when they left home,” he said.
But even more alarming, Campbell said, is the rate at which Vietnam veterans are dying. Despite their younger age in comparison to veterans from previous wars, they’re dying at twice the rate.
“We loose 390 each day,” Campbell told the students. “If you’re ever heard of Agent Orange — that’s the stuff they used as a defoliant to make the leaves fall off the trees so they could see the enemy. They told us it was safe, but it turns out it turns out it kills everything it touches, including the men and women who were serving. Forty years later they’re dying; agent orange will stay in their genetic pool for seven generations. Because of organizations like this, and the schools that raise money, we’re able to fly four times a year. We’ll take another 400 [veterans] this year.”
Campbell advised the students to thank a veteran whenever they could — but they should give a different message to those from Vietnam.
“If you can see by the hat or jacket they wear that they served in Vietnam, don’t thank them. The Vietnam veterans generally don’t want to be recognized for their service. But what you can say so much simpler and only two words: welcome home,” Campbell said. “It will bring them to their knees emotionally, and you might be the first person to ever say those words to them. You might also be the last.”
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