COLUMBIA — Russell Hellwig always told his family he didn’t do anything important in World War II. He just “played the drums in a jazz band.”
But when his family went through his things after his death, they learned he had earned six Bronze Stars. Hellwig contributed much more than music to his country.
“That’s the thing about these veterans — they just didn’t talk about the war,” said Sarah Hill, Hellwig's granddaughter and a KOMU news anchor.
When construction began on the World War II Memorial in 2001, Hellwig started clipping pictures of the project from newspapers and had his name listed in the national registry. He made plans to visit the site but died before he got the chance.
To find out more about Honor Flight and download veteran applications, guardian applications and FAQs, go to http://www.komu.com/honorflight.
Those interested in attending Alpha Gamma Sigma and Delta Tau Delta’s barbecue fundraiser for the Honor Flight program can buy tickets for $5 at either house in advance or on the day of the event. Veterans will be able to eat free. The event is Sunday from noon to 7 p.m. outside the Alpha Gamma Sigma Annex, 407 Burnam Ave., off Providence Road.
That's why Hill became involved with the Honor Flight Network that flies veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the memorial for free. There are “hubs” throughout the country to serve as many veterans as possible.
Hill was invited to take an Honor Flight with a Sedalia group last October and then featured it as part of the "Sarah's Stories" news segment on KOMU. At the time, there was no hub serving Columbia.
“While I was video editing these stories, I went through lots of Kleenex. I’d look at the veterans on the Honor Flight and see my grandpa’s face. He would have loved this,” she said.
According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, the United States loses around 1,000 veterans per day, and Hill ended her story with a plea for someone to lead an Honor Flight from central Missouri before it was too late.
“It pains me to no end to think that many of our veterans, including my grandpa, had only seen pictures of their memorials. They saved the world. They deserved an Honor Flight,” she said.
Barb Brueggeman, who now is president of the central Missouri hub, contacted her after Hill's segment aired.
Like Hill, Brueggeman took a personal interest. Both her parents were World War II veterans, her father a Marine, and her mother a WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). Her father died before she was born, but her mother told her that he, like Hellwig, never talked about the war.
Brueggeman did her own research, found his battalion and met the men who served with her father at a battalion reunion in Branson.
“I was basically adopted by 15 new dads,” she said.
It was a tremendous experience, but these new “dads” were 83 to 92 years old.
“I knew it was going to be a relationship that was short-lived, and I wanted to do more to honor them,” she said.
Brueggeman was impressed by the veterans' modesty. “They didn’t think there was anything special about them. The only heroes were the ones that didn’t come home."
Hill also received an email from Steve Paulsell, former chief of the Boone County Fire Protection District, who is now vice president of the hub. Paulsell’s father was a World War II veteran.
Hill, Brueggeman and Paulsell worked to spread word of the organization and to raise money for a flight for central Missouri veterans. The hub kicked off in mid-January.
“People thought we were nuts starting a fundraising group in this economic crisis, but quite frankly we couldn’t afford to wait. … If we waited, we’d lose precious lives,” Hill said.
Thanks to donations from private citizens and small businesses, the Central Missouri Honor Flight hub was able to schedule Honor Flights for May 5 and May 19.
There are about 35 World War II veterans, 20 guardians, a doctor and several nurses scheduled for each flight. Both are full. The guardians help veterans who need help, such as someone to push a wheelchair or to carry oxygen. Many are second-generation family members.
The veterans will fly commercially on Southwest, which offers the cheapest rates, Hill said.
There are more than 60 veterans from mid-Missouri on the waiting list, and the hub is trying to raise enough money for a third flight.
People have been generous so far. Hill has a huge box of letters in her office from people who wrote with stories of the veterans they lost and included a check. It costs $250 to adopt a veteran, but any amount is accepted.
Two MU fraternities are also pitching in. Alpha Gamma Sigma sophomores Scott Jones and Travis Coffman and Delta Tau Delta freshman Dan O’Connor are planning a barbecue fundraiser that will take place from noon to 7 p.m. Sunday outside the Alpha Gamma Sigma annex, 407 Burnam Ave., off Providence Road. They hope local churches will spread the word and sell tickets.
“The barbecue is perfect for lunch or dinner after church,” O’Connor said.
Jones and Coffman learned of the Honor Flights through fraternity alumnus Larry Schuster, who is on the board of directors for Central Missouri Honor Flight. Other Central Missouri directors visited to tell them more.
“These people really appreciate what we’re doing,” Coffman said.
The fraternities are confident they can raise the $12,000 that a single Honor Flight costs. That means they need to sell 2,400 tickets. They want to show veterans their support and are working with the media to publicize the event. They also have looked to the Rotary Club and Kiwanis Club for help.
The support is much appreciated, Brueggeman said. “The response from central Missouri has been amazing. … We have been so swept away by how people have responded."
Hill said she would love to have a corporate sponsor step up with a large donation, which would help them reach Brueggeman’s ultimate goal.
“Our true dream is to get a charter flight out of Columbia,” Brueggeman said.
A charter flight, which cost from $45,000 to $53,000, would allow the hub to fly more veterans at once.
Some veterans going on the Honor Flights in May are coming from Truman Veterans Hospital; at least two are terminally ill.
“I get a handful of phone calls from veterans each day asking in frail voices where they are on the waiting list," Hill said. "We need to get them to D.C., and we need to do it quickly."
The day of an Honor Flight is a long one. Veterans leave Columbia at 3:30 a.m., ride a bus to St. Louis, fly to Baltimore, then take a bus to Washington, where they visit the World War II, Vietnam and Korean war memorials. They also visit Arlington National Cemetery, where they can watch the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Afterwards, they are bussed back to Baltimore for the return flight, arriving in Columbia around 10 p.m.
Although that itinerary would tire any young person, the veterans don’t spend their travel time resting. Instead, they are energized by each other’s company and enjoy swapping stories and experiences, Hill said.
Brueggeman, who will be taking both flights, said she anticipates emotional trips.
“I have a feeling I’m going to need more Kleenex than they will. ... They never had a chance to grieve. Going to the memorial will give them that opportunity,” she said.
That's why World War II Navy veteran John Uhlig is going on the May 5 Honor Flight. Although Uhlig looks forward to seeing the World War II Memorial for the first time, he was quick to note that he is going more for the friends he lost.
"My closest friend was missing from Guam, and just going (to the memorial) is really about him," he said.
Uhlig was stationed in the Philippines and on the USS Birmingham during the war. He heard about the Honor Flight program through Hill, who is friends with his daughter.
"Sarah forced me into it real quick," he said with a laugh.
Although he knows the trip ahead of him will be long, he hasn't taken any steps to prepare for the flight. Instead his plan is much more simple.
"(I'll) just take it as it comes and enjoy it," he said.