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World War II vets treated to homecoming they never had with Badger Honor Flight

Badger Honor Flight participants gather in front of the Marine Corps War Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery on October 8, 2011.
Badger Honor Flight participants gather in front of the Marine Corps War Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery on October 8, 2011.
Credit:Badger Honor Flight
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When Ted Cappas, now 87, returned from fighting in World War II, he traveled from Fort McCoy to Madison in his uncle's flower truck. There was no pomp or parade when he arrived home. His cousin George Choles, 87, and friend Sam Fatsis, 88, also returned home from the war without celebrations or thank you's.

"No one greeted the World War II veterans after the war was over," says Cappas. "We just came back, went to work, and raised a family."

The three men, all first-generation Americans of Greek heritage, served in different units of the U.S. Army between 1942 and 1946.

After the war, Cappas worked as a restaurateur in the area before retiring eight years ago. Choles eventually took over his dad's flower shop; the Park Street shop is now run by Choles' son and daughter. And Fatsis worked as an aircraft mechanic for the Air National Guard after spending some time in the Air Force.

Last October 8, the three men traveled together to visit the war memorials in Washington D.C. on a chartered plane full of veterans. Both the coordinators and veterans involved say they feel honored to be part of the Badger Honor Flight experience.

"We all owe everything we have to that generation that was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice without thinking twice about it," says Steve Bartlett, volunteer public relations officer for Badger Honor Flight. "Time to say thank you is really running out for these great men and women [who served in World War II]."

With World War II veterans dying at a rate of approximately 1,000 per day, Badger Honor Flight volunteers are eager to ferry as many as possible to the memorials built in their honor. This non-profit group organizes trips for veterans in Dane and 10 surrounding counties to Washington D.C. for a one-day tour of the national war monuments. World War II veterans currently take priority, but terminally ill veterans of any war are also moved to the top of Honor Flight lists.

Earl Morse, a physician assistant for the Department of Veterans Affairs and a retired Air Force Captain, organized thefirst Honor Flights on small planes out of Springfield, Ohio. After the construction of the World War II memorial in 2004, Morse personally flew veterans to visit the site. The program grew from there.

Badger Honor Flight, whose travelers depart from Dane County, is one of six hubs in the state for these trips. The local branch formed in 2009 with the first flight out in 2010. Since then Badger Honor Flight has coordinated seven trips for 662 local veterans. The oldest traveler was a woman from Janesville, age 102, who served as a nurse in World War II.

The trips are coordinated by volunteers, who run all aspects of the program. Among other things they book chartered flights to bring veterans, guardians and medical staff to the nation's capitol.

Bartlett became involved after witnessing Honor Flight travelers in D.C. "I was overtaken emotionally seeing these veterans in wheelchairs trying to stand up and salute," remembers Bartlett, whose father served in World War II and "died way too young."

Robert McGuigan, a volunteer fundraiser and veteran of the Vietnam War, takes great pride in his service to these living veterans and to the memory of his father and uncle who served in World War II. "God bless them, I wish they were here," says McGuigan. "I got involved as a veteran, and for these men and women."

Added McGuigan: "They gave me my freedom."

While the program runs effectively with around 150 volunteers, Badger Honor Flight is constantly in need of two things: "We need vets and we need money," admits Bartlett.

Each trip costs around $92,000, or about $1,000 per veteran. All of the funding comes from fundraising events and private and corporate donations. On Saturday, July 7 the group will host a Hangar Swing Dance with '40s-era tunes performed by Ladies Must Swing. The dance will take place at Wisconsin Aviation on the east side of the Dane County Regional Airport, and feature raffles, a silent auction and drink sales to benefit Badger Honor Flight. Bartlett hopes to raise enough funds ($3,000) to cover three veterans.

The dance, in its third year, is an event in and of itself, with attendees from all over the region dressing in period costumes and dancing to swing and jazz music.

With flights booked for the fall already, the group is constantly fundraising and coordinating trips. Bartlett and McGuigan both feel a sense of urgency because World War II veterans range in age from 84 to 102.

They've scheduled flights for September 8 and October 13. Veterans will experience a full day in D.C., then return home to a reception of thousands of family, friends, and grateful strangers at the Dane County Regional Airport -- a reception they didn't experience when they returned home from the war.

(Listen to a roundtable discussion with Fatsis, Choles, and Cappas.)

The tour of the monuments, the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery, and the dramatic homecoming touched Cappas, Fatsis, and Choles. They all said the experience moved them to tears.

"This honor flight is a tremendous thing to honor all the veterans," says Cappas. "We really appreciated it."

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