Washington, D.C. visit helps honor area veterans
BELOIT Dick Kath of Janesville tears up when he talks about his father, a World War II veteran.
"We are running out of World War II veterans," he said. "I get choked up when I think about what they did. It's amazing how many people don't know why we have our freedom today."
For four years, Dick has volunteered with VetsRoll.org of South Beloit, Ill. The group takes veterans on motor coaches to visit memorials in their honor. Dick will be among those who make sure that vets returning from the four-day trip to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday get a rousing welcome home. About 200 World War II and Korean vets will arrive at Beloit's Eclipse Center between 9:15 and 9:30 p.m.
A police, fire and motorcycle escort will greet the vets, who will find more than 1,000 U.S. flags along the return route in Beloit. Dick will help lead the caravan of 11 coaches and a wheelchair-equipped support van with his 1957 Chevy tribute car. He and other family members built the stock car in honor of their late father, Al, who was a prisoner of war in Germany. Dick drives the black Chevy as a rolling tribute in parades, at race tracks and at fundraising events for vets.
He encourages people to line the streets along the "victory-parade route" and to crowd the Eclipse Center, where the veterans will end their all-expenses-paid journeys. Spectators are encouraged to bring signs that say "thank you" and to dress in 1940s-era clothing.
In 2010, Dick went along with his dad on the emotional trip, which allows vets to connect with each other and to talk about war experiences some have never shared.
"Many of these soldiers never got a welcome home," he said. "They came back and went straight to work. It is time to thank them."
Co-founder of VetsRoll.org Mark Finnegan said most of this year's veterans are from the Korean era and about a third served in World War II.
"We still give World War II veterans first priority because of their age," he said. "The group is dying off so fast, and we just don't have that much of a window left to celebrate what they gave us."
Women who worked for the war effort at home during World War II also take part in the journey.
Mark's father, Cy, served in the South Pacific in World War II. He had hoped for a memorial to honor veterans of the greatest generation. But Cy died in 2000, four years before the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., opened.
In 2010, Mark, his wife, Darlene, and his brother, John, ignited a local movement to pay tribute to aging veterans. Their trip focuses on veterans in the stateline area, including Rock and Walworth counties. This year, the group also includes veterans from eight different states. The nonprofit group is not connected to Honor Flight, which also takes vets to Washington to visit war memorials. Honor Flight uses planes, which return on the same day from Washington, D.C.
The Finnegans, who own Finnegans' RV Center in South Beloit, use motor coaches to allow veterans the room to move around. They also take pride in the fact that the trips are all sponsored through community fundraisers.
"We don't have a huge community sponsor," Mark said. "Our largest single donation last fall was $15,000. Otherwise, we mostly get donations in the amounts of $25 to $100."
He estimates community fundraisers and donations have raised $750,000 so far, and VetsRoll.org has taken about 725 veterans on the annual journey.
"It is such a program from the heart," Mark said. "People understand that. They feel the urgency and the passion of it. That is why we have been so successful in challenging times. We hope to keep this going for as long as I am walking."
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email email@example.com.
To learn more
The route of the VetsRoll.org parade in Beloit can be found at vetsroll.org.
The caravan is expected to arrive between 9:15 and 9:30 p.m. Wednesday at Beloit's Eclipse Center, where a welcome-home celebration will take place. People can follow the trip on Facebook.
Veterans who are interested in going on the 2014 trip may call Mark Finnegan at 608-207-8319 or John Finnegan at 608-207-8317 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To raise money for the 2014 VetsRoll.org trip, country singer Michael Peterson will perform a benefit concert at 7 p.m. Friday, June 21. The event will be at Central Christian Church, 2460 Milwaukee Road, Beloit.
Peterson recently dedicated his life to supporting various military and veteran groups. He has performed on nine tours to Iraq and Afghanistan since December 2010. He also is the 2008 recipient of the Bob Hope Spirit of Hope award for his service to the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Peterson will debut his new CD, "We are Veterans," at the event. The CD is being released in July.
Tickets are $35 at the door and $30 in advance. Tickets can be purchased in advance at Culver's of Janesville, Beloit, Delavan and Belvidere, Ill., and at Finnegans' RV Center in South Beloit, Ill.