Ryan Sawicki, 17, Clover Bottom, will be a junior at St. Francis Borgia Regional High School this fall, but he’s already well-versed in the ways of the military. He’s been surrounded by it his entire life.
His father, uncle and four of his six brothers all were in service.
So when Rosalie McGaugh, president of the Franklin County Honor Flight, approached him about serving as a guardian for a veteran on an April trip to Washington, D.C., Sawicki jumped at the chance. He had already been to D.C. before with his father, a Vietnam-era veteran, specifically to see the Vietnam Memorial, and he was excited at the thought of going again.
“I wanted to go just to pay back to the veterans who never really got that welcome home,” said Sawicki, a cadet in the JROTC program offered through Washington High School.
As a JROTC cadet, Sawicki has helped at the Welcome Home ceremony held for Honor Flight veterans as they return from D.C., and it made an impression on him.
“You can see it in their eyes when they get off the plane and walk into the room where everyone is greeting them,” he said.
Franklin County Honor Flight is nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices.
“We transport our heroes to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect at their memorials,” the website reads.
Part of a national program, Franklin County Honor Flight volunteers made their first trip to D.C. in November 2007 with seven World War II veterans. Since then, FCHF has planned more than 30 trips to D.C. and escorted more than 1,000 veterans to see their memorials. These days the flights are filled mostly with Vietnam veterans.
The group plans several trips each year.
On each trip, every veteran is paired with a guardian who looks out for them on the daylong whirlwind trip from Missouri to D.C. and back.
Last year was the first time the Franklin County Honor Flight assigned a high school student to be a guardian for a veteran. Ira Black, then 17 and a senior in the JROTC program at Washington High School, served as a guardian to Darryl Gentry.
Black, whose family has a long history of military service, was already planning to enlist in the Marines after graduation. The experience between Black and Gentry was so successful, that the Honor Flight decided to approach other JROTC cadets about serving as guardian as well.
“They are the next generation that we need to pass on our respect for the veterans and active military,” said McGaugh.“They need the opportunity to experience the camardarie with veterans and to see the veterans appreciate the monuments built for them and their fellow soldiers who have died.
“Guardians on an Honor Flight get to experience, from a different view, the respect our veterans receive,” she said. “Most Americans will never know how the veterans on an Honor flight are welcomed home — the welcome they never received the first time.
“Our younger generation needs to be offered, from organizations, the chance to participate in organized events, especially with veterans,” McGaugh continued.
Sawicki served as a guardian for Tom Heitzmann, a Vietnam-era veteran who lives in Beaufort, on the April 13 Honor Flight. And Hannah Licklider, of the Air Force JROTC program at St. Clair High School, served as a guardian for Don Piela Sr., Marthasville, who served in the Navy from 1970 to 1991, on the June 22 trip.
Plans are for a cadet from the Marine Corps JROTC at Pacific High School to serve as a guardian on a FCHF trip next year.
The role of a guardian begins with meeting the veteran to gather information about his or her service. Sawicki said he called up Heitzmann to set up a time they could meet a few weeks before the trip.
“I was really excited to talk with him, to hear some of the stories and experiences that he got to have,” said Sawicki, who noted that he took his father along for the interview.
As a guardian, Sawicki was given specific questions to ask Heitmann — everything from years of service and type of training to if he left any sweethearts behind and what the food was like, as well as any memorable experiences.
What Sawicki learned was that Heitzmann didn’t feel like he deserved to go on the Honor Flight.
“Because he hadn’t fought in Vietnam, he didn’t see any active combat,” said Sawicki, noting his father, who had made the trip in 2016, had felt the same way. “They didn’t have boots on the ground there, so they felt undeserving.”
The day of the trip, the guardian’s role is to make sure the veteran has everything he or she needs at any time, because it is an extremely long day.
The April 13 group mets at Mid-American Coaches around 3 a.m. and arrived at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis at 4:30 a.m.
They arrived in D.C. around just before lunchtime, and were greeted by members of the Naval Academy. They spent several hours touring the monuments and were headed back to St. Louis that evening.
“We’d get dropped off at a location and then each guardian and veteran can go where they want and at their own pace,” said Sawicki. “We were moving fast. We only had two hours to tour the Vietnam, Korea and World War II memorials. Then we moved over to Arlington National Cemetery to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”
Heitzmann, who was recovering from rotator cuff surgery at the time of the trip, said the day went even more smooth because he had Sawicki looking out for him. Despite Sawicki’s age, Heitzmann said he was never worried about having him as his guardian.
He described Sawicki as “a rarity among kids his age,” because of his interest and knowledge of U.S. military service. Heitzmann compared him to a teen he was speaking with recently who didn’t know what D-Day was.
Seeing the monuments was special, said Heitzmann. Piela agreed. He found standing in front of the Vietnam Memorial was a tough experience.
“A lot of emotion there,” he said, noting he was able to find the names of two friends from his hometown in Massachusetts who were killed in Vietnam and get rubbings of them from the Wall.
Although he had been to D.C. before a few times, Piela said he considers his Honor Flight experience one of the most special of his life.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime event. It was that significant,” he said, noting as someone who spent his career after the military in project management and operations leadership, he was most impressed with how well they were ble to stick to the schedule. “It was flawless — getting places on time, getting through on time, getting food, everything . . .”
Piela was even more impressed with his guardian. Although Licklider is a teenager, she has a maturity and leadership skills well beyond her years.
“She’s one of the nicest young persons I have ever met,” he said. “She was just outstanding . . . I was very impressed by her . . . She was very pleasant, had good, positive energy all the time, was always smiling and happy. She took good care of me.”
Licklider is planning to go to the Air Force Academy, and Piela has already told her he’d like to be a mentor for her, sharing his experience as a military officer.
For McGaugh, that’s exactly the kind of interaction she was hoping for between these two generations.
Heitzmann grew up in Webster Groves, but he now lives on 13 acres that he and his wife bought in Beaufort back in 1977. It’s a peaceful setting with lots of wildlife — dogs, chickens, geese and their ducklings . . .
Heitzmann had just turned 20 when he enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1970 at his mother’s suggestion. He served until 1974.
“I was a seaman,” he said, noting that meant he did cleaning, painting and other work to keep the ship looking its best. “I qualified for all the schools, but could never manage to get myself in. I was an underachiever.
He served on the USCGC Wachusett doing ocean patrols before heading to Japan.
One of the highlights of his years of service was a pre-commission tour he did to Kodiac, Alaska. Another highlight was being assigned to the buoy boat on the Missouri River from 1973 to ’74.
“We’d go up the Missouri River putting in buoys, day boards, lights, batteries, cleaning brush,” he recalled, noting Washington was one of the places they would tie up. “We were marking channels so the towboats know where the main channel is and not get stuck. We’d go up to Boonville, all the way to Kansas City.
“It was beautiful working on the river like that, the scenery,” said Heitzmann, with a smile.
After his service in the Coast Guard, he went on to have a career with Chrysler working on the assembly line for 32 years.
Don Piela Sr.
Piela joined the Navy Reserves in 1970 and began active duty service in 1971. Twenty years later, he retired from a decorated Naval career as a lieutenant commander.
Serving in the Navy was a tradition in his family. His father and two uncles had served during World War II and two of his brothers were in the Navy.
“By the time I was 13 years old I really had a desire to join the Navy someday,” said Piela. “I lived 20 miles from Newport, R.I., and every year they had an open house. We’d go up there and tour the ships. My older brother was running a transition barracks up there. I went and stood watch with him one night from midnight to 8 a.m., and I got the feel for the whole thing.”
After graduating high school, Piela decided rather than wait to be drafted, he would enlist in the Navy Reserves.
He had been working as a machinist for a company that was a government contractor and had an apprenticeship in a Boston Naval yard. So the Navy assigned him to be a machinery repairman.
Piela found he enjoyed his service in the Navy, which helped him mature and develop a discipline he was lacking. He re-enlisted in 1973 and throughout his career, Piela was continuously given opportunities to move up and prove himself, which led to doors being opened and promotion after promotion.
“Doors kept opening for me,” said Piela, noting he worked as a Navy career counselor for a time and participated in NESEP, Navy Enlisted Scientific Education Program, which led to him graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1979 with a degree in electrical engineering.
Piela earned his commission and went back to the fleet as a Naval officer. His first job was as electrical officer on an amphibious ship and he spent nine months in the Persian Gulf, 1980-1981, in the midst of the Iran hostage situation.
Among the ships he served on were the USS Boone, USS Yorktown, USS Philippine Sea and the USS Luce.
But looking back the highlight of his Naval career was serving in Panama in 1989 as part of Operation Just Cause to arrest dictator Manuel Noriega on drug-trafficking charges and restore the democratically elected government of Guillermo Endara.
In Panama, Piela served as assistant deputy chief of staff for operations and ran the command center. During the invasion, he was transferred to the XVIII Airborne Corps, where he was the first naval officer in history to serve as an action officer on a Corps level staff. He coordinated combat actions and logistics for 8,000 troops.
“I was writing the daily situation report that went to the White House, NSA and joint chiefs of staff,” said Piela. “Twice a week I gave a presentation to the commanding general and all his staff.”
Piela said he wrote the 15-page Top Secret message that then-President George H.W. Bush used to make the decision about invading Panama. This came after a night that saw a Navy lieutenant and his wife kidnapped and tortured and a group of Army soldiers detained and threatened to be killed.
After retiring from the Navy in 1991, Piela went on to work as a project manager and operations manager. He also became a professional floral designer, owned a flower shop at one point, learned to play the saxophone, served on the town council and did various charity work, like blanket and food drives and feeding the homeless on the streets of Washington, D.C.
He has lived in New Jersey, Virginia and California, but moved to Missouri with his late wife, Marjorie, to be closer to her family. He now lives in Marthasville and is engaged to be married, publicly proposing to his fiancee, Sandy Bailey, during the Welcome Home ceremony of his Honor Flight trip in June.
Piela thanked Licklider with helping him make the arrangements and get the OK from Honor Flight organizers.
“I like doing things in a big way,” Piela remarked, with a grin.
Plans to Contribute More
The Honor Flight experience for Piela was so moving that he now wants to get involved with the organization, volunteering to do what he can to help other veterans.
“I don’t know where they can use me, but I want to be involved,” said Piela. “It’s such an honorable group.”
Sawicki said he plans to do more as well. He already has plans to hold a dress down day at his school to benefit Franklin County Honor Flight, having fellow students donate $1 or more to dress out of uniform for the day. Ideally, the school would be able to raise enough to sponsor at least one veteran on a trip, said Sawicki
“Being a guardian made me really appreciate that we have people with the Honor Flight who volunteer to go out and do this, and I was really thankful I could be a part of it,” he said.
For more information on the Franklin County Honor Flight, go to www.fchonorflight.org.