Reflections from Three Pillars’ Veterans: Three Recount Their Time in the Service and on a Stars & Stripes Honor Flight

November 11, 2019
 

Three resident veterans from our independent living community recently had the experience of a lifetime on a September Stars & Stripes Honor Flight. Wayne Pinnow, Jim Schuyler, and Gene Slobodianuk. All of them said it was beyond any of their expectations and an unforgettable day. In the spirit of Veterans Day, when they sat down to recount the trip, they also agreed it was not only a great honor to travel on an Honor Flight, but also to serve our country.
 

Resident veterans who traveled on an Honor Flight.
Three Pillars resident veterans Wayne Pinnow, Jim Schuyler, and Gene Slobodianuk.
 

Jim Schuyler remembers, “When I first heard about the Honor Flight program, my original thought was that I’d like to go and help a veteran as a guardian, so I contacted them. Instead of volunteering, they encouraged me to apply to travel on a flight.”

As a member of the Wisconsin Army National Guard, 32nd division for eight years, Jim didn’t feel qualified for the Honor Flight experience. In 1961, he and approximately 10,000 men in his division were activated and sent to Washington on federal duty, but he still felt that those who served in Vietnam, Korea, or WWII were much more deserving of a trip like this. Once he learned that his dates of service qualified for a flight, he began to consider it and decided to apply. “I still feel like the other guys who were out in front while I stayed stateside did so much more, but I am so grateful for the opportunity to participate.”

Wayne and Gene agreed with that, “Even those who didn’t leave the states still served – even if they never saw combat – they still served their country.”

Wayne likens it to a business, where you might see those in the forefront doing the interactive work, but you have a whole crew of people in the background supporting them and doing their part to make sure the up-front work can be done.

As honored as Jim was to go, he also paused to remember his five uncles who were also veterans. They sacrificed so much and didn’t have a chance to go on an Honor Flight. In a way, Jim feels as though his trip honored them, as well.

Gene Slobodianuk originally enlisted in the Army for three years, and when the Korean war broke out, he served an additional year. Once in Korea, his unit shorthanded and held him over 76 extra days. He served in the Army Security Agency, doing radio intercept. His was a mobile unit, and in the states, they had a huge antenna field to monitor all the embassies. In Korea, they monitored the field units. Their unit could only get within eight miles of the front line because of their equipment. They had to scatter, knock down their antennas, and get their equipment stowed when they moved. “It was interesting work,” he recalls.

Towards the end of his time in Korea, after serving those 76 extra days beyond his enlistment, he recalls walking eight miles to Seoul to get a lawyer, where he learned his options: re-enlist or go home. “That was a no-brainer. Three days later I went home.”

Thinking about his September Honor Flight, he can’t get over how special it was.
 

 

“It was kind of hard to keep your composure together. It got me thinking of any past troubles between vets or from different wars, and now, we’re all one again. We’re all appreciated, and appreciating each other for what everybody did. It was fabulous.”


Wayne Pinnow served in the Army Signal Corps as a radio relay operator where he was stationed in Germany for three years. He remembers February 8th, 1961 very well – his birthday, and the day his ship arrived in Germany. After about a year, he began overseeing his own site as a Commander with six men working under him, which he did for the remainder of his service.

“I enjoyed my time in Germany serving our country,” Wayne reports. “After I was over there for a year, I got to come home and get married.” They planned their whole wedding via airmail. His then fiancée Judy was graduating from high school that June, and Wayne wanted to propose at the graduation. He bought the rings in Germany and sent them home to his dad, who had them ready for the proposal. Wayne and his late wife, Judy, got married December 30 - one of the happiest days of their lives.

The two of them moved to Germany together, and they look back fondly on that time in their marriage. They had no family or friends in Germany – it was just the two of them, and together, they learned a lot and built a strong foundation for their exceptional marriage. Over the next two years as Wayne served our country, they had two children – a son and a daughter. Wayne earned his Sergeant stripes the same day his son was born.

He, too, is so thankful to have traveled on an Honor Flight. “It was probably the most emotional and memorable thing I have ever done. The one time I really lost it on the trip was during Mail Call. I’m tearing up now just remembering it,” he says. The veterans each received a large envelope full of mail during their travels. “It was unreal,” Wayne adds.
 

Resident veteran Wayne Pinnow reads his mail at Mail Call on the Stars & Stripes Honor Flight
The Mail Call portion of the Stars & Stripes Honor Flight was a highlight of the day for veteran Wayne Pinnow.
 

Resident veteran Jim Schuyler discusses Mail Call on the Stars & Stripes Honor Flight
Jim Schuyler shows his Mail Call envelope from the Stars & Stripes Honor Flight.
 

He received letters from family, friends, employees at Three Pillars, and even students from the classrooms of which he was friends with the teachers. The most special letter in his envelope was from his grandson who is actively serving in California in the Marines. “I completely lost it – it was so special. They even got a photo of me sitting there crying!” he laughs.

For Jim, one highlight of the trip was meeting up with his grandson from Virginia, who drove 45 minutes with his three young boys to see some of the monuments with Jim. He also enjoyed seeing the Changing of the Guard and witnessing two wreath-laying ceremonies.

What stands out to Gene about the Honor Flight trip was seeing the Korean War Memorial. “I’ve seen pictures of it on TV and I have talked to others who’ve visited it. But being in Korea myself, I was impressed to see it.”

He also loved seeing Franklin Delanor Roosevelt’s house. “I was amazed at the big blocks of stone they’re using for that, it’s huge, very impressive. It covers a lot of ground.”

Gene, Jim, and Wayne all agreed that seeing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was a highpoint as well.

“It was just a whole experience,” says Jim. “The thing that really stands out in my mind is the organization that went into this whole thing. Ours was the 53rd Stars & Stripes Honor Flight, and the 7,000th veteran was on our trip. To think of the hundreds of volunteers that go into this to coordinate it all on both ends; how well it’s organized – it’s incredible. The fact that we got off the plane at 11:30 PM and there were probably up to 2,000 people cheering us on along the roped off aisle – just amazing. Everyone was there to greet us, including the band, bagpipes – that really shows how much people love their servicemen and appreciate everything we’ve done.”

Gene adds, “It’s so amazing. When you get home, people are so appreciative of us veterans. When we came back to the airport, we had the band, bagpipes, all those people and military people saluting you – you come out into the terminal and are immediately greeted by the huge crowd.“ They all commented that it was absolutely unreal, especially at that time of night.

Jim continued, “When they were all there saluting us, every one of them all different ages, I saluted each of them all the way through right back. It’s not all about us, it’s about them too! It really tugs at your heart.”

Additionally, Gene, Jim, and Wayne were blown away by the Stars & Stripes team. They guessed there were two or three volunteers for each veteran traveling, and they didn’t need to work hard to do anything. There was someone right there at all times to help, and all they had to do was just look for a volunteer in a yellow shirt. They were told often, “Just follow the yellow!’”

“We’re so thankful to all the volunteers who give of their time, whether on the Board of Directors, in security, part of the reception, volunteering during the flight, you name it. There are so many local people that are part of this,” Jim commends.

Every detail for their Honor Flight was flawless, including the fact that they each had their daughter accompany them as a guardian on the trip. Each daughter traveled at no charge, thanks to the Operation Freedom initiative funded by generous donors through Three Pillars Senior Living Communities and Lake Country Freemasons Lodge #42.

Operation Freedom logo
The Operation Freedom initiative encourages all Three Pillars veterans to participate in an Honor Flight and covers their guardian fee.


While there is no cost to the veteran for an Honor Flight, typically, the guardian pays a $500 fee --- but not Three Pillars resident guardians. Operation Freedom seeks to accomplish a twofold goal: 1) that every eligible veteran who resides at Three Pillars will travel on an Honor Flight, and 2) that each of their travel companion guardians will fly at no cost.

The three men from Three Pillars sat near each other on the flight, and they said their daughters sat directly behind them. Never having met prior, they hit it off and became fast friends that day. “We didn’t even have a chance to say much anyways, we just listened to the girls all day,” they laugh.

“My daughter is the one who instigated this whole thing,” Gene chuckles. He’d been talking about doing an Honor Flight for quite some time, and even had a friend years back who said he’d help him apply, but it didn’t happen. Gene gave up, thinking he’d never go. “I came home one day and saw the application on the table. That was a highlight that she helped me get on the Flight and was able to go with me.”

Wayne says it meant a lot to have his daughter there with him. “She doesn’t get a chance to travel much and had never visited Washington, D.C. When we returned, she told me it was one of the better days of her life. It was just awesome.”

“It meant the world to me to have my daughter with me,” Jim adds. “I used to have two daughters but now she’s my only child, and it meant everything to me to have her there.” As someone who’s always helping other people and volunteering his own time, it was hard for him not to jump up to help on many occasions during the trip. “My daughter kept me in line, reminding me today was one day she wanted to do the helping and I wasn’t supposed to lift a finger! She carried everything for me that day, wouldn’t even let me carry my mail bag,” Jim remembers. “She thoroughly enjoyed it, too.”

When asked if they’d recommend the Honor Flight to other veterans, their response was unanimous. “Oh my gosh, yes. Definitely. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime – do not pass it up.”

They gave special thanks to everyone at Three Pillars, Lake Country Freemasons Lodge #42, and Stars & Stripes for their support, in everything from encouraging them to apply to helping with guardian funding to the early morning and late-night transportation to and from Three Pillars.

Gene adds a closing remark for any young people considering joining the service – a decision he’s certain they’d never regret. ”If you don’t know what quite to do, join the military. It teaches you responsibility, respect, and even job skills to help guide you for your next step. It can make men and women out of you, and you can see the world,” he suggests. “When you come out of it, you’re more mature and ready to do your part as a citizen. It’s an experience. I’d do it all over again.”

 

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If you’re interested in making a gift to Three Pillars’ Operation Freedom initiative, you can make a simple, secure, tax-deductible online donation using the "Donate Now” button on our Charitable Giving page and selecting “Operation Freedom Fund” from the designation dropdown box. Your gift will help ensure that guardians accompanying Three Pillars veterans are able to participate at no cost and make the dream of an Honor Flight a reality for all residents and their guardians!

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