Five Forest Park veterans, including Commissioner Joe Byrnes, were honored Sept. 23 in a village hall ceremony recognizing their recent participation in an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.
Mayor Rory Hoskins held the ceremony after finding out that the veterans took part in the Sept. 16 flight, which flew Chicago area veterans to Washington D.C. for an all-day visit to military memorials and museums. The mayor said he wanted to bring positive attention to veterans of the Korean War, who often get overlooked, and the Vietnam War, whose service was overshadowed by the controversy over the war itself. Byrnes, who served in Vietnam, said he was grateful to be able to participate in the Honor Flight, describing it as the kind of welcome home he didn’t get when his service ended.
Mary Norge-Drent, a retired Forest Park Middle School teacher who helps coordinate the flights in the Chicago area, said the Sept. 16 event involved 114 veterans, two of whom served during World War II, 10 of whom served in Korea and 102 who served in Vietnam.
Of the five Forest Park veterans, Donald Lines and Dennis Close served in Germany during the Korean War and Vietnam War, respectively. Byrnes served in the Army in a combat support capacity from 1965 to 1969. Clifford Lieber served in the infantry in 1965 and 1967. Gary Steger served as a radio operator in Vietnam.
During the Sept. 23 events, veterans and their families were seated at a table draped with quilts, while village staff and audience members sat in socially distanced chairs further back. The fire department lined up a truck at the south end of the municipal parking lot and had a large American flag hanging from the truck’s ladder.
Hoskins said growing up in the 1980s, he didn’t learn much about the Korean and Vietnam wars in school, and he felt that it was “almost taboo” to discuss the latter. It wasn’t until his mentor, a Vietnam War veteran, told him some stories that he started to get a sense of what it was like to serve in that war. That is why, Hoskins said, he thought it was important to recognize those veterans now.
“When we found out that Forest Park had [residents on] the Honor Flight, we thought the village could do something special,” he said.
Norge-Drent got choked up as she described the flight, and the outpouring of support the veterans received every step of the way.
“When [Vietnam veterans] got home, they were spat on,” she said. “Honor flight decided to change that. We are very honored to celebrate those fine gentlemen today.”
Byrnes, the only veteran who chose to speak, recalled coming home in grim circumstances, saying that while he got over it, “deep inside, there was still resentment.” He said that visiting the memorials in Washington D.C., especially the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, what struck him most was the cheerful send-off they got, the letters they received and the parade that greeted them upon their return to Chicago.
“I was so impressed and shocked that so many people were there,” Byrnes said. “I will never forget what the honor flight has done for us. I will never forget all the memories we had, because now, I’m home.”