On Memorial Day, Pete Stenberg hopes everyone remembers to show our veterans respect, honor and gratitude.
“So many of them haven’t been recognized,” he said. “I think it is important to always say hello, greet them, shake their hand. Make them feel special because they are.”
Stenberg, who lives in Crown Point with his wife, Kay, has learned a lot about honoring veterans. He volunteers his time to serve as the Northwest Indiana coordinator for Honor Flight (Honorflightchicago.org), which offers World War II vets the chance to visit the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. for free, and receive the hero’s treatment they all deserve.
“I do as much as I can in this area to spread the word about Honor Flight and try to connect with World War II veterans.” There are still about 18,000 of them left in the Chicago area, he said.
“These guys, they’re still out there,” Stenberg said. His own father is an 85-year-old World II veteran, but Alzheimer’s disease prevents him from making the trip. Stenberg said he wishes he had known about Honor Flight four years ago when his father could have still gone.
“I would have loved to be able to take him. Every time I go, I photograph the veterans and I think of my dad. It’s one little thing I can do to honor my father.”
He said his dad, an Air Force veteran, never talked about the war and he never thought to ask. “Now I wish I had,” he said. He hopes other families encourage their loved ones to take the Honor Flight so they can find closure to their war experiences.
As a full-time professional photographer, Stenberg has shot weddings, corporate events and portraits. He even did a stint working for Disney Event Groups in Florida.
“There were a lot of magical things down there, but the Honor Flight is a different kind of magic. It’s so rewarding.”
Stenberg has worked in the volunteer position at Honor Flight since spring 2012 after being called by the organization. They invited him be a photographer at the next flight and he agreed.
“Once I did it and saw all the magnificent things that went on – all the emotions – everything happening for the veterans. At that point I was hooked and knew I’d be doing this forever.”
Stenberg, who also spent 15 years volunteering on the Lake Hills Fire Department, said, “There are so many charities out there that are wonderful. Everybody has things that they like to volunteer for and they’re all good. I just happened to stumble on this with the Honor Flight.
Stenberg works closely with the Northwest Indian veterans, sometimes even driving them to and from their Honor Flight trip. He considers many of the local guys his friends including Jim Nolan, of Merrillville, who he approached as they were coming out of a grocery store.
“I saw him with his Navy hat on so I said to him, ‘hey, young man, are you a World War II veteran?’ We started talking and I started telling him about Honor Flight. He filled out the paperwork and a few months later, called to say he was accepted and scheduled. They decided Stenberg would drive him to and from the flight and “that started the whole thing going. He’s become a great friend since then.”
Other Northwest Indiana veterans Al Terzes and George “Dynamite” Christakis took the Honor Flight last year.
“Whenever I find veterans on the flight who are from Indiana, I always try to give them a little more attention,” Stenberg said.
The three veterans joined Stenberg last year when he spoke to the Merrillville Breakfast Kiwanis Group. They shared their experiences to encourage other veterans to take advantage of the chance to go.
“George died about a month and a half ago at almost 99 years old,” Stenberg said. “What a great person. Those kinds of guys I love to take.”
A few of his veteran friends will join Stenberg in a few days when he talks about Honor Flight on the Veteran’s View Radio Show. The show will run from 9:05 to 10:05 a.m. May 31 on AM 1230.
“I want to get these guys’ stories out,” Stenberg said. “I think it really makes an impact to hear other veterans talk. They totally get the message of what’s going on.”
He said anyone who would like to get involved as an Honor Flight volunteer can start by coming to a return night. After the veterans’ day long trip to D.C., they arrive back to Midway Airport to a special surprise.
They get off the plane and are greeted by thousands of bagpipers, firefighters, police officers, and soldiers from every branch of service.
In baggage claim, they see another crowd, this time full of family members and friends.
“That’s when it really gets emotional,” Stenberg said. “Everybody is crying and smiling. That’s probably the icing on the cake of the whole day is when they come back to that celebration.”
Honorflightchicago.org has the dates of upcoming flights and information on attending the return nights.
Stenberg said he has no military experience of his own and was in college during Vietnam. His number in the draft lottery was 247 and he was never called to serve. “Later in life I wished I would’ve served my country and spent time in the military but hopefully I’m making up for that now.”