Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

Veterans earn chance to see memorials

by Chris Schultz

May 30, 2013

It’s taken 60 years, nearly a lifetime, but the nation is throwing its arms around the men and women who served and sacrificed during World War II and the Korean War.

Last week, nearly 200 veterans and about 100 volunteer caregivers boarded 10 buses and two support vehicles in Beloit for a four-day journey to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials and monuments erected to their dedicated and faithful service, and for those who never made it back home.

Called VetsRoll and organized by Mark and John Finnegan, owners of Finnegans’ RV Center, Beloit, the program is providing veterans with a much-deserved free ride to Washington, D.C. The program is a ground-based version of the Freedom Flight, which flies veterans to Washington, D.C. for free, and operates as Badger Honor Flight out of Wisconsin.

Actually, the rides aren’t free. These veterans paid their fare long ago.

VetsRoll picked up veterans in Lake Geneva at the Walmart parking lot on Saturday, May 18.

Among the Lake Geneva-area contingent were Ed Jaros of Lake Geneva, and four friends with Geneva Lake area connections, Ed Grendahl, Marines; Larry Bettenhausen and George Johnson, Army; and Jack Manzella, Navy.

The five are all Korean War veterans, although Jaros did catch the end of World War II. They said they learned of VetsRoll and signed up for it at the 2012 Walworth County Fair.

For four days, they were all passengers aboard Bus 2.

“We traveled caravan style,” said Jaros, who served in both the Navy and the Army. “Each state provided state troopers as escorts. It was a wonderful trip.”

Jaros said he went on the Honor Flight, and it was a wonderful experience. But that was for one day. VetsRoll is a more leisurely, four-day journey.

“It was less of a rush than Badger Honor Flight,” Jaros said.

Manzella said he appreciated the slower pace of the VetsRoll tour.

“It was a great experience. You got to meet other veterans,” he said.

Jaros said he met a vet from Kenosha who served in the same division as he did in Korea at the same time. However, it took more than 50 years for the two Army comrades’ paths to cross, on a bus outbound from Lake Geneva.

Each bus had eight attendants and two nurses to watch over veterans who had special medical needs, Grendahl said.

Leaving Beloit’s Eclipse Center shortly after 5 a.m. Sunday, May 19, the veterans’ caravan headed out to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Air Force Museum near Dayton, Ohio.

There, the group had dinner in the officers mess. And then there was a military-style mail call, said Grendahl.

He said they all received packages of thank-you letters and cards from kids from Rock and Walworth county schools.

They stayed in Dayton overnight.

“We did not get much sleep,” said Grendahl, who did not sound like he was complaining. He said the nurses would come knocking on their doors about 3 a.m., making sure the vets were feeling well and taking their medications.

“Some of us have medical issues,” added Bettenhausen.

Shortly before 6 a.m. Monday, they were on their way to Hagerstown, Md., where the vets stopped for the night to gather their strength for the trip to the nation’s capital.

The itinerary says the vets had breakfast starting 4 a.m. Tuesday. By 8 a.m., their buses had reached Arlington National Cemetery.

The vets said they received a short tour of Arlington Cemetery.

Jaros said his group got to visit the grave of actor and war hero Audie Murphy and the grave of President John F. Kennedy.

Grendahl, Bettenhausen, Manzella and Johnson said their group didn’t get to see Kennedy’s burial site.

But they all saw the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The vets toured the World War II Memorial and saw the Korean War Memorial.

Manzella said the weather was ideal in Washington D.C. In fact, at the World War II Memorial, it may have been a little too warm, he said.

Grendahl said the attendants were always there, asking if the vets needed a rest. Those who did were pushed in wheel chairs until they regained their strength.

With some pride, Grendahl added that although he and his four friends felt the heat and occasionally felt tired, they never needed the wheelchairs. Those, he said, were reserved for those who really needed it, many of whom were World War II vets now in their 90s.

There were some surprises. Grendahl said that while in Washington, D.C., he met a friend from Chicago he had not seen in years. That friend now lives in the Washington, D.C. area, he said.

Johnson said his daughter, Karina, also met him in Washington.

After a day of tours through the Washington, D.C. monuments and museums and dinner, the vets were back at their hotel in Hagerstown.

They were expected back in South Beloit by 9:25 p.m. Wednesday. But things ran a bit late. The buses didn’t arrive at their final destination until 11 p.m.

But that didn’t dampen the spirits of those waiting for the heroes to return.

People were waiting for them to arrive back in Beloit. They were also met by the mayor of Beloit, military spokesmen and fireworks.

Jaros called the homecoming “awesome.”

“There must have been thousands of people welcoming us home,” Jaros said.

“We were tired, but that woke us up,” said Manzella. “They really did it up.”

“It made us feel like we were important for five or 10 minutes,” said Grendahl.

“It made us feel like we won the war,” Manzella said, to laughing agreement from his friends.

And at the end of the trip, the vets received gifts from locals.

The Knitting Grandmas of Janesville provided each vet with a homemade afghan. And each vet received a jacket and hat.

But the most precious thing they may have come away with were the memories.

“It was worth it,” Grendahl said.

And the trip may not be over.

The vets of Bus 2 may have their own reunion, said Grendahl. He said they’re planning a get-together for sometime in October.