One of the many things I love about my job in small-town journalism is getting to meet, know and hear the stories of incredible people who have seen places I’ve always wanted to visit, but probably never will.
Like Iwo Jima.
I wrote about Iwo Jima years ago, and then received a call from a WWII veteran, also named Dean, who told me he’d been there. I quickly made an appointment to talk to him, and heard his account of watching the raising of the flag in that famous photo that became the inspiration for the Marine Corps War Memorial.
In 2011, I took photos of several Vinton veterans, including Jim Peterson, at that Memorial. Jim, a Navy veteran, was there with a few other local veterans, including former fighter pilot and p-61 fighter pilot and flight trainer Burt Davis, U.S. Army weapons instructor Jay Bolin and U.S. Army Air Corps veteran Milton Smith. Another of my friend who had gone on an earlier Honor Flight was former Vinton Mayor (and Iowa Legion Department Commander) Vince Blank. His U.S. Navy military service included WWII, Korea and Vietnam; he was one of the witnesses on V-J Day, watching the surrender ceremony in Tokyo Harbor.
I loved meeting these veterans, and hearing their stories. On the bus in Washington, D.C., I was talking to a veteran from another town, and didn’t even notice that he had a glass eye. It was after he told me that he was injured by a land mine in North Africa that I realized what injuries he had suffered nearly seventy years earlier.
Of the four veterans I photographed during that 2011 Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C, Jim Peterson, was the last to die.
On the day of Jim’s funeral, Feb. 16, we received the news that another local native and veteran, my aunt Kathryn Close, was in the hospital with what would be her final battle with cancer and its complications. We arrived in San Antonio on Sunday, to find Kathy able to recognize us hug us tightly, but unable to speak. She died four days later.
At around midnight on Feb. 21, a relatively new tribute took place at the hospital known as BAMC or more recently SAMMC at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
A couple of young military medical trainees draped a flag over the gurney that would transport Kathy to the morgue. The staff on duty line the hallway in a show of respect, and then joined an informal but solemn parade, following us to the morgue. They then symbolically presented me the flag.
Tomorrow, a U.S. Air Force cemetery team will do the same for our aunt. Uniformed airmen will carry the casket, and also provide the gun salute and taps. And a local member of the Patriot Guard has offered to arrange a motorcycle escort to Bear Creek cemetery. It will be a big military tribute, colorful and loud. Since she was in the Nursing Corps, the funeral will also include a tribute from retired Mercy Hospital nurses.
I think every U.S. veteran should have a funeral like that.
My Aunt Kathy retired in the early 1990s as a Lt. Colonel, a significant although not a historic accomplishment, although at that time she had a higher rank than 85 percent or so of Air Force personnel.
We learned that the proper way to address a Lt. Colonel is to call them “Colonel.” We were impressed at the young guards who saluted Aunt Kathy when we took her through the security gates to the base or the military medical center. We met the woman who had been her boss decades ago. We heard one of Kathy’s friends laugh as she told us how she felt being a retired Major in a room full of retired Lt. Colonels.
I had already begun writing about Jim and Honor Flights and the need to honor veterans when we received the news about Kathy.
My friends at the Eastern Iowa Honor Flight organization continue to take veterans to Washington, D.C. a few times each year. Two trips have been scheduled for the spring and two more will be planned for the fall. Most of the WWII veterans who have been able to go to D.C. via Honor Flights have done so, and the group is now focusing on veterans of Korea and Vietnam, although they would certainly be glad to bring along a WWII vet who has not yet participated. (Click HERE for more information about signing up a veteran or accompanying one).
I will warn you that becoming friends with a veteran like this will guarantee some moments of sadness when it’s their time to die.
Although it’s sad to have to write about losing them, it would have been tragic if I never had this chance to know, and to help tell, their stories.
See a 2011 Honor Flight story HERE.