By Jim Krencik
Medina Journal-Register — QUANTICO, Va. — For a group of veterans from Orleans and Genesee counties, the 2012 Patriot Tour provided an opportunity to experience the camaraderie that military service breeds and visit a series of military and governmental sites around the Washington area.
The fifth-annual trip was organized by Assemblyman Steve Hawley, who served as a First Lieutenant in the Ohio Army National Guard during the Vietnam War-era and later served in the U.S. Army Reserves, and run by his Albion office. It’s based on the tour Hawley took his father, a member of Merrill’s Marauders, on in 2005 to see the then newly-dedicated memorial to World War II soldiers.
The veterans received a welcome reception throughout their trip, starting from the group that sent them off from Batavia Downs Thursday morning. John Swartzenberg, the Commandant of the Holley Hellhound Marine Corps League, Detachment 1271, was among those who lent a hand in loading the two buses with supplies.
”Steve asked us to come out,” said Swartzenberg, who has participated in trips that brought individual World War II veterans to Washington. “We’re donating supplies and food.”
Others donated to fund the trip, with more than $6,000 helping reduce the cost of the trip for veterans. This year’s trip cost around $300, down from $400 in 2008. “The generosity of the community is heartening,” said Hawley.
The trip to Washington stopped for lunch and rest stops that gave veterans a chance to socialize between generations, from World War II veterans to Air Force Technical Sergeant Philip Gaudy, who returned home just in time to go on the trip with his wife.
Army Veteran Kevin Sheehan observed the changing demographics of the tour, which started with the goal of bringing World War II veterans to Washington.
”We were among the youngest on our first trip,” said Sheehan, who traveled with his wife, Carol. “Now there’s more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. But you can’t top the World War II vets’ stories.”
As the trip hit the congestion of Washington traffic, the story was on the standstill on the I-95. Lester Marble, who served in Marine Corps during the Korean War, was used to the slog. He has made the trip through the nation’s capital hundreds of times since his senior class trip sixty years ago.
”When I saw the traffic in Frederick I knew we were in trouble,” Marble said at a spicy, Kansas City-style barbecue at the Mickie Finn Marine Corps League detachment in Quantico. “We made it further than I thought.”
The tour group split on Friday, with some heading to the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, and then either the National History Museum or the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
At the Pentagon, the scene of one of the four deliberate and deadly plane crashes that led to the current military conflicts is marked with 184 cantilevered benches over reflective pools in the field facing where Flight 77 struck the Pentagon, each marking one person who died in the attack.
Stanley Stefaniak, who served in World War II, was among those who walked through the Halocaust museum’s exhibits showing the inhuman tragedies suffered by European Jews at the hand of Nazi Germany.
”I’m glad I served, after seeing this ... my uncle was in a Polish camp and the Americans saved him,” Stefaniak said. “I was struck most by the ovens (on display next to a table where gold and other valuables were removed from dead bodies).”
Those who signed up for the trip early this summer took a tour of the White House. Anne Rupert, who came with her husband Vernon, said much had changed in the 50 years since she last visited 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
”We just walked in and were on our way, you didn’t have to wait,” Rupert recalled.
The veterans had an extended tour of the White House, giving them views of an arch still stained by soot from the Burning of Washington in 1814, banquet rooms and portraits of the Presidents and their First Ladies.
“There were Secret Service guys in every room, they were very informative,” Rupert said. “It was really very nice.”
From there, they all traveled to the National World War II Memorial, where a memorial wreath was laid at the New York pillar and a pair of guests stopped by. Alan Cobb, a Navy veteran and Medina native living outside Washington, stops by each trip to help out. He later joined the group at the Arlington National Cemetery.
Saidash Gaisin came to the memorial from a farther distance. Gaisin was a Staff Sergeant in the Red Army and fought in the Battle of Stalingrad. He chatted with World War II veteran Mike Paduchak in a conversation that mixed Ukranian and Russian and posed for pictures with the men and women who were allies in the fight against Nazi Germany.
Friday also brought the veterans to the memorials for Korean and Vietnam wars, where they took group photos with the men who served in their wars after walking solemnly through the monuments. Joseph Franklin, who served as a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, said the next day that it’s a difficult experience to think of those who were lost in combat.
“I can’t walk down (the memorial wall), it’s too emotional. I stand at the end,” Franklin said, remembering past visits to read the name of his best friend, a Scotsman who volunteered to serve. “He was shot down six months before he was due to come home. His name was at the end with the missing in action, but when it was confirmed that he was killed in action it moved towards the middle.”
The servicemen and women were surrounded by a group of wives and husbands, children and friends. Their role shifted at times from supportive to detached.
“I thought my wife would find it interesting,” said Larry Smith, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War, at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. “She knows what’s happening when two or three of us are together, quiet.”
The Marine Corps, beyond being the branch hosting the trip, served an outsized role in the trip. All of the veterans wore their service with pride, but the Marines stood out. Jason Buck, a Staff Sergeant from Batavia who is in active duty in Chesapeake, Va., has joined the trip from his base each year.
“I always make a point to come, I took leave this year,” Buck said.
The Marines got a cheerful reception at Mickie Finn’s on Saturday for a social hour featuring unprintable activities and the trip’s final stop at the Marine Corps War Memorial, a giant bronze replication of the Iwo Jima flag raising. The experience is a hared one.
“It doesn’t matter when and where you served,” Hawley said. “They all come together.”
Many veterans had individual moments were a nod or smile of thanks were presented by strangers. Vincent Schollard, who served as a Hospital Corpsman during the Vietnam War, received a personal word of thanks at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Museum.
“I was a walking through the museum and a woman approached me, asking “Vietnam?” , “ Schollard said at lunch in the air and space museum. “I said yes and she told me she was from Vietnam and thanked me.”
There were plenty of thanks to go around as the trip neared it’s conclusion.
“Steve, thank you for doing this for Orleans, Genesee counties ... a trip to honor us and other people. I hope you continue to do this,” Paduchak said at the final dinner of the trip, held at a seafood restaurant in Washington.
It’s one all sides would love to do again.
“This is my fifth year and I enjoyed it as much as the first,” said Hank Valerych, who served for more than 20 years, first in the Navy during World War II and then in Army during the Korean War. “I hope to do it again.”