On Saturday, April 29th, there was a strong showing for Casino Night, being held at American Legion Post 100, in Sparta. The cost to enter the event was $20. With the tendered money, entrants were given a blue chip that they would turn in at the gaming table and receive a certain amount of playing chips. If players ran through those chips and wanted to continue, they simply paid another $20. At the end of the competition, slated for 9 p.m., there were drawings for donated prizes and then the grand prize drawing was held for $500, which was donated, out of pocket, by members from the Freedom Honor Flight Coulee Region committee.
There is much more than meets the eye at any event for the Freedom Honor Flight – it is a soulful and heartfelt uniting between the men and women who made it back from war and the folks who want to see them honored, to the highest degree.
Chair Gail Raddatz
Gail Raddatz chairs the Freedom Honor Flight Coulee Region committee, overseeing all events involving the flights. While there are many American Legion members on the committee, they are entirely separate; incorporated as a charitable organization. Committee members include, Don Whitacre, Tony Guldenaar, Dale Nauman, Sue Nauman, Janet Bohn, Connie Schaitel, Delores Bowen, Agnes Jenkins, Edie Habhegger and Lee Phillips.
“There is a list of 500 Veterans who are waiting on flights right now,” Raddatz informed the Herald. “If a WW II Veteran signs up, they go to the top of the list. If a Veteran is around number 400 and gets a terminal disease, they move to the top as well.”
Gail went on to speak on what the flight means to some Veterans. “For the Vietnam guys, they [upon returning from Vietnam] had to sneak into a bathroom and throw their uniforms in a garbage can because people were spitting on them. This Honor Flight is the welcome home they deserved, but never got.” Raddatz said that if someone is healthy and signs up now, there will be a 2 to 3-year wait.
When pressed by the Herald, on how much money would be made at the night’s event, Raddatz explained, “We will have big money pledges coming in, so we will sit down and have a wrap-up meeting in a couple weeks. We prepare for this event a full year in advance. We do not have to go down right away and frame a check, because the flight on May 13th is already paid for. They do not plan a flight until they have money for it.” Raddatz went on to explain that chartering a plane now, costs over $110,000. In addition, there are labor costs and food costs.
American Legion Commander
Tim Hyma, Commander of American Legion Post 100, presented a check to Gail Raddatz, from the American Legion, in the amount of $500. “There has been so much money raised here over the years that we actually had two Honor Flights named after our post,” Hyma stated. “The committee is just a fundraising arm for the Freedom Honor Flight, out of La Crosse. They held this [Casino night] every year, up until covid. Then, for 2 years, they held a dance. This is the first year the Casino Night is back.
Gail Raddatz dove deeper into the details of the night and past experiences with the Honor Flight. She explained that each gold stars hanging from the ceiling had the name of a Veteran that had been on an Honor Flight, or was in honor of a Veteran that had died . The blue and red stars represented businesses that had donated to the program, throughout its 15-year run. “They only have to donate once, and then we will always put a star up with their business name on it, but most donated every year,” Raddatz said.
The Kenny Rhymer experience
Then Gail pointed to the gold stars. “One of those gold stars has the name Kenny Rhymer on it,” she told the Herald. “I go to the hangar in La Crosse, to see the Honor Flights off, as I am a member of the Legion Riders. One time I saw Kenny going and I said, ‘You’re gonna have a great time Kenny!’” Gail had been a guardian for her father when he went. “That evening, when Rhymer returned, I saw him squinting, as if he were looking for someone. He saw me and ran straight to me. ‘Where can I give money for this? I want someone else to go and experience what I just experienced.’ The next time I saw him, he gave me a check for $500. It is really a special experience for everyone involved.”
Gail Raddatz went on to explain that 100 percent of the money is from donations; no state or federal money comes into it and there are groups all over the United States doing it. Gail went on to talk about her experience, when she was the guardian for her dad. “It is a plane full of Veterans. Many have never spoken of what happened or what they had been through. They start talking with each other, letting out what they have held in for so long.” Raddatz went on to say how the trip had been on her father’s bucket list for a long time. “He was so excited. It was like he was a kid again. He loved the fireworks and the band playing, when the group returned to the packed hangar, in La Crosse. There was applauding, cheering and hollering. Some people even held signs up, welcoming their family member home.”
Marine Doug Brown and wife Bonnie
Doug and Bonnie Brown walked in on Saturday, presenting a check to Gail, as well as two stained-glass art pieces they had created. Doug is a Vietnam Veteran and had been on the Honor Flight already. “It was emotional. When we landed, there was a large group of people that greeted us at the airport,” Brown stated. “While we were on our tours, masses of people would follow us around. It was impressive. It was much more than I thought it was going to be. I would recommend it to any military Veteran.”
Brown talked about seeing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the WWII memorial, Vietnam Memorial, and he spoke on the Women Veteran’s Memorial. “They were so tough, the women Veterans. Their memorials were awesome.”
Bonnie Brown, on her husband’s experience, told the Herald, “It’s the welcoming back they should have gotten when they came back from Vietnam. They put their life on the line for their country, and the way they were treated … that has always bothered me.”
Doug Brown further stated, “It was emotional for me, to do it at this time in my life. I came back from the war, raised kids, married my beautiful wife … I think I appreciated more at this age than I would have when I was younger.”
Brown also spoke to the bonds formed between Veterans on the flight. “There was a lot of talking between us all. We had a WW II Veteran with us, in a wheelchair. We had plenty to say, I’ll tell ya.” Brown’s message to other Veterans: “110 percent, do not pass that opportunity up.”
Director Bill Hoel
Bill Hoel, one of the directors for the La Crosse Freedom Honor Flight organization, informed the Herald that they have a photographer on the flight, who takes around 1,700 photos, then whittles them down to 700. The Veterans then get them on a flashdrive. “Many Vietnam-era vets do not speak flash-drive, but other members of their family do,” quipped Hoel. “That same photographer sends me photos from D.C., and we put them up on a huge screen, 10 feet by 5 feet. The family members watch the screen as they wait for the plane to arrive back in La crosse. Sporadically, we show the flight enroute, so the anticipation builds.”
Rule number one, according to Hoel, is to never disappoint a Veteran. “Three times, Veterans have died within 48 hours of coming back from the experience, and their families all said, ‘We had never seen him so happy.’”
As Casino night drew to a close, Tony Guldenaar and Connie Schaitel drew winning names for some extra prizes that were donated, read them off and were helped by Miss Sparta, Ellie Eswein, in assuring the prizes reached the rightful winners. Guldenaar had been on the May 18th, 2019 Freedom Honor Flight. “It was really fantastic, a lot more than I expected … very impressive.” Guldenaar’s photo hung on the door, at the entrance to the event. As well, many photos were up of past Freedom Honor Flight participants. The photos were poster-size and they all had one thing in common: big, bright smiles that emanate from the soul, issuing an emphatic statement of gratitude, and an honor unleashed, given permission to spread its wings and soar over purple mountains majesty and amber waves of grain.
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