With stage 4 terminal kidney cancer, John Lechowicz does not have the luxury of time, but thanks to local and national veterans organizations, he was recently able to fulfill a dream.
Lechowicz, 69, of Yorkville, served in the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam from November of 1968 to May of 1970.
Like many local veterans, Lechowicz has patronized the Veterans Assistance Commission of Kendall County. It was VAC Assistant Superintendent Olivia Laschober who told him and his wife, Cathleen, about the Dream Foundation and Honor Flight’s Their Last Chance program.
“[Laschober] was the one that had told us about Honor Flight and that they have a special TLC one for people that are terminal, and about the Dream Foundation,” Cathleen Lechowicz said. “So it’s thanks to her that all this actually happened; she’s the one who put it in motion for us.”
The VAC is “just terrific,” John Lechowicz added.
Laschober said she learned about the Dream Foundation at an accreditation conference for the National Association of County Veterans Service Officers. She said she and John were talking one day about the traditional Honor Flight program, and that while World War II and Korean War veterans were using the service, the organization was still in the application stage for Vietnam War veterans.
“He’s like, ‘well, I don’t think I have enough time,’” Laschober said.
The Dream Foundation describes itself as “the only national dream-granting program for terminally-ill adults,” and it partners with the Honor Flight organization’s Their Last Chance program, which transports veterans via Southwest Airlines to Washington, D.C., to view war memorials and other landmarks in the area.
“When John applied with Dream Foundation he was hoping to be a part of Honor Flight but unsure of how to do it,” said Dani Cordaro of the Dream Foundation. “We worked with Honor Flight to bring this final dream to life for John.”
The veterans receive lodging and meals at no cost to them, according to the Dream Foundation. As part of the flight, veterans need to have a guardian to help them with medical needs and to assist them if necessary.
While using the services of the VAC, John Lechowicz met Ed Kurz, who drives veterans to Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital as part of the VAC’s services.
“Some people need a lot of help,” John Lechowicz said. “Ed takes care of those people and he’s really a blessing to them.”
The pair have since become good friends, and Kurz, a fellow Vietnam veteran, accompanied Lechowicz on his trip as his guardian.
“They became friends over the years, and they were both in Vietnam so they’ve got that camaraderie,” Cathleen Lechowicz said of Kurz and her husband.
According to Cordaro, Honor Flight’s Their Last Chance program covered the cost of Lechowicz’s flight, while the Dream Foundation covered the cost of bringing along Kurz.
“They just do wonderful things,” Laschober said.
Kurz said he’s known many veterans who have gone on Honor Flights, “and there’s nobody that doesn’t come back just elated.” He said he and Lechowicz were the only sponsored veterans on their flights, unlike a traditional Honor Flight that is a chartered flight with a group of just veterans.
“The way you’re treated, people are cheering for you,” he said. “Just before we took off, the captain gets on the loudspeaker system and announces that we’re on there, and the whole plane starts clapping. And that’s repeated when we were coming home.”
Laschober said the veterans were treated with “so much respect.”
“They never got that when they came home back in the ‘70s,” she said. “I’m sure it was just very humbling. When they were telling me their story, I was like, ‘Oh I want to cry.’ It was really nice, it was a nice gesture.”
During the trip, John Lechowicz said he met a variety of fellow veterans and people who appreciated them.
“You got to meet some other folks,” he said. “Everybody has their own stories and on the TLC flight, most of the people were terminal. It was nice to see what was happening and how other people were looking back at things. Everybody was extremely thrilled because the reception that you got, even on the plane, and there were crowds of people wherever you went, it was awesome.”
According to Cordaro, the veterans were also treated with a pinning ceremony while they were in D.C.
The veterans arrived in D.C. on Friday, Sept. 9, had dinner that evening, and spent all day Sept. 10 touring the various war memorials and other sights, such as Arlington National Cemetery. They then had breakfast that Sunday, Sept. 11, and arrived home that afternoon.
Little did John Lechowicz know, his wife had arranged a welcome home party for him when he returned. Family and friends, along with members of the Yorkville American Legion and Knights of Columbus at St. Patrick Parish, were there to greet him at Midway.
“We had tons of family and friends, with balloons and flags and signs and banners,” Cathleen Lechowicz said. “It was wonderful.”
John Lechowicz said that, at first, it was tough to see who was there, as radiation treatments have affected his eyesight. But he quickly realized that the welcoming party was for him.
“The doors opened and I stared and looked, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I know these people!” he said. “They were all screaming and yelling; it was just outstanding.”
Lechowicz served in the Philippines during the Vietnam War. He said he would go to Vietnam “every couple months” to work on an air base.
He initially would spend time at the Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon.
“Saigon is a big city, you didn’t have to worry about Viet Cong coming at you,” he said, although he pointed out that “every now and then you’d get a rocket, stuff like that, so it wasn’t like being somewhere that’s totally impervious.”
Lechowicz would also spend time at Cam Ranh Bay Air Base, which was sometimes under heavy fire, he said.
“They actually got rocketed quite a bit,” he said. “You really had to watch where you were going.”
He would work at least 12-hour days, six days a week, and he would spend his day off opening his eyes to the war by hopping cargo plane flights.
“A lot of times I chose to board these cargo flights, and I got to see what the war was like, and you find out it wasn’t that great,” he said. “You’d go to these places, these fire bases, where they had a lot of artillery, and sometimes there were bodies there. Several times you were going to a fire base where there was a lot of vegetation, there’d be planes flying around with Agent Orange and they’d circle the place so they would kill the vegetation around the base. So it would be like a free-fire area that you could see the enemy coming right at you.”
He decided to stop his frequent trips after a few close calls, he said.
“When they’d see a plane coming, they’d just shoot at it,” he said “You had to worry about things like that. Sometimes we would land, and they would try to shoot the plane with a mortar or something. So I got out of that, and thought, I’ll just stay where I’m at and take it as it comes.”
Lechowicz said he saw the “whole picture” when he joined the cargo plane flights.
“When I was at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, that was one of the places where they collected all the people that got killed and processed the bodies and everything, and they put them in these metal coffins,” he said. “I’m sitting there and I’m looking at these two big jet planes and they’re filling them with dozens and dozens of caskets. I’m like, oh God, where are all these people getting killed? That’s what made me want to get on some of these cargo flights and see what was happening. You got to see the whole picture instead of just hearing from someone else what was going on.”
One of the goals Lechowicz had when he visited the Wall memorial was to find the name of Cathleen’s cousin, a medic who was serving in Vietnam around the same time when he was killed in action at the age of 19.
“One of the things I wanted to do was see his name on the wall,” he said. “That was really something.”
Lechowicz grew emotional when he talked about touching the Wall and the names of the dead that adorn the memorial.
“When I got to the wall, I felt like if I touched it, I could feel the....” he said, pausing. “You just felt like you were in touch with all these people just for a few seconds.”