PORT WASHINGTON - A local veteran on a trip to Washington, D.C. with the Honor Flight Network was visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and started having chest pains.
Dr. Ted O’Reilly, a family practice doctor in Port Washington, suggested the man go to the emergency room. The veteran declined, saying he just needed to sit down for a minute.
While resting in the air conditioned bus, the man spoke of how this was the first time he saw his only son’s name on the wall — his son had been killed in combat.
“He was so overwhelmed by seeing his son’s name on that wall it just about killed him,” O’Reilly said.
Sadly, the man, who had a disease and had been brought on the Honor Flight from a nursing home, died shortly after the trip.
O’Reilly said the story speaks to the urgency of the national Honor Flight Network to bring veterans to Washington to visit the memorials which honor them.
Founded in Port Washington in 2008, the southeastern Wisconsin hub of the network, the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, recently served its 5,000th local veteran.
The Honor Flight takes veterans from World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War, among others, on an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington D.C. to see the war memorials. The organization is run solely by volunteers.
“We’re very fortunate to have such tremendous support from the community,” O’Reilly said.
The southeastern hub stretches from Sheboygan south to the Illinois border and goes out west about halfway to Madison.
O’Reilly is the chief medical officer for the Aurora Medical Centers in Grafton and Washington County. He’s a volunteer medical director for the Honor Flight and a member of the Honor Flight's board of directors.
Both O’Reilly and fellow board member Dr. Chris Budny, an internist at Columbia St. Mary’s, review medical forms for flight participants to anticipate any medical or other needs prior to the flight. When you're flying 70 to 90 veterans, all between 80 and 100 years old, O’Reilly said you need to be prepared.
Typically there are two physicians on each flight along with one paramedic or nurse. Doctors from Aurora as well as ProHealth Care and other systems have flown on the flights.
O’Reilly said he was familiar with a few people involved with the Honor Flight program and first went along as a guardian for a veteran.
“It was very inspirational and moving and I wanted to be more involved,” he said.
O’Reilly was accepted to the board three years ago and has been on 15 or more flights as medical support, guardian or the medical lead.
Another story that stands out in O'Reilly's mind is that of a Korean War veteran who showed a picture of himself sitting under a tree eating some rations on his birthday. He then showed O'Reilly a picture taken the next day. There was a huge hole where the veteran had been sitting and the tree was half gone — it had been bombed overnight.
O'Reilly said the more you talk with the veterans the more you find out they are very interesting people.
“It’s really all about the veterans, they sacrificed so much time to preserve our freedoms,” he said. “They really did do something special; they took time out of their lives to serve our country.”
There are a few more Honor Flights planned for 2017 — Sept. 16, Oct. 14 and Nov. 4. O’Reilly said he’ll be on all of them.
For veterans who don't have the ability to fly to Washington, the Honor Flight takes them on local trips, such as bus tours to Brewers games and a yearly air and water show, among other events.