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Helping 'Honor' veterans

February 15, 2013

The Flag City Honor Flight program would be used to help local veterans travel to see the World War II Memorial.

The nephew of a couple who devoted their lives to the U.S. military plans to help veterans living in Auglaize County travel to Washington, D.C., to see the World War II Memorial.
Tom Stinebaugh, the nephew of Lt. Col. Marie Bilyj and Col. Steve Bilyj, is offering to help veterans get into contact with Honor Flight organizers in Findlay to ensure they get the chance to visit the World War II Memorial.
“The goal of Honor Flight is to get every World War II veteran who can and wants to Washington, D.C. to see the World War II Memorial and from there they see as many memorials as they can,” Stinebaugh said. “My goal is to get the word out to every World War II veteran in Auglaize County, that if there is anybody out there that wants to go and is physically able to go we will help them get there.
“There is no question my aunt Marie and my uncle Stephen, who served at
the tail end of World War II, would have wanted us to help veterans make it to the memorial,” he said.
Stephen Bilyj, who joined the U.S. Army in 1946, served during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict. After a 30-year career ending on April 27, 1970, he then served for years in the Army National Guard.
Marie Bilyj, who earned her nursing degree from St. Rita’s School of Nursing, in Lima, enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict.
While serving overseas, the couple met and then later married in 1964. After nearly 50 years in the service combined, the Bilyjs retired to Dover, N.H., to be close to Stephen Bilyj’s mother. When Stephen Bilyj died in 1998, Marie Bilyj moved back to Wapakoneta to be close to her sisters and 23 nieces and nephews.
Reflecting on the lives of his aunt and uncle and recalling a visit to Washington, D.C., with his son, Alex, Stinebaugh thought about helping veterans see the memorials in the nation’s capital.
Stinebaugh, who cited 2011 statistics which indicate the United States is losing approximately 900 World War II veterans each day, said the Honor Flight Network attracted his attention because the goal is to fulfill the dreams of U.S. veterans by offsetting their travel expenses through donations. The trip for the veterans is free.
Stinebaugh plans to make a donation to Honor Flight, mostly likely to the chapter based in Findlay, in honor of his aunt and uncle. He would work with Flag City Honor Flight Director Deb Wickerham, who organizes chartered flights out of the Toledo Express Airport.
“The biggest thing is that most of these veterans did not come home right away in 1945, the ticker-tape parades that we think all the World War II veterans received is a myth,” Wickerham said. “Most of the them came home to empty train stations, empty bus stations. I have one veteran on a video I made that says the trip to Washington, D.C., is the first time anybody said thank you to him — this is amazing since this is called the Greatest Generation.”
She said when they take groups to visit the memorial she is left speechless by the number of children and adults who come up to the World War II veterans and thank them for all that they did.
“These men are amazed that all of these kids and people are doing this,” Wickerham said.
After visiting the memorial and when they exit the planes at the Toledo airport, she said the men are greeted back at the airport by approximately 400 people waving flags and signs, bagpipes playing and members of the Patriot Guard making a tunnel.
“You can’t help when you go on this flight to realize that all the hard work was worth it,” Wickerham said. “When you see their faces, the smile on their faces and the joy in their eyes — it is just life changing.”

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