Spending 9-11 with Real Heroes

My neighbors, Kenny and Cherie, own a beautiful historic building in downtown Willoughby. At street level it’s an Arabica Coffee House, but the upstairs is unoccupied, and the perfect venue for small parties and events. The interior walls are brick with several tall, arched windows. The floor is all original hardwood, and the view is one of the best in the square because you can see everything that’s going on downtown from the front and side windows. If you’ve never been to downtown Willoughby, it’s quite a picturesque place.

Anyway, after a lot of remodeling, the upstairs is ready to rent out. Kenny wanted to do a test-run before opening it up to paying customers. But if he was going to put on a free event, he wanted to make sure it was meaningful. Being a huge admirer of veterans, especially WWII veterans, he decided that it would be the perfect opportunity to allow the general public to visit with real-life heroes and say “thank you.”

I told Kenny I wanted to photograph the event and do some portraits of the veterans. I shot a little, ate too much, and couldn’t get enough of the stories. As I listened to John and Jack (WWII vets) speak about all battle theaters they had been in and what they had seen,  I couldn’t help but to recognize that I was in the presence of true greatness. I cannot overstate it. Famous actors covet the roles in which they get to pretend to be these people (and to think so many of us look up to the actors). These members of the “Greatest Generation” saved the world. There’s not too many people who can claim they’ve done that. To be completely honest, I felt about the size of a pea next to these guys. I kept thinking “what the hell have I ever done?” Of course, to talk to them, they were just doing their duty. Fulfilling their obligation.

There were veterans of every pre-9-11 conflict. Most were in Vietnam, but some were in Korea. One man that served in Vietnam joined the reserves years later, and then served in Desert Storm. He laughed about how old he was compared to all the “kids” he served with. But he still rides a Harley.

There were two really sweet ladies from the Honor Flight Network who came to visit and support the veterans. The Honor Flight Network is a program that pays for WWII veterans to travel to Washington, D.C. to visit their WWII memorial. According to recent statistics, we are losing 1,000 WWII veterans per day. So it is the mission of the Honor Flight Network to help every willing veteran  see their memorial. The veterans I spoke with raved about their trip to Washington and how wonderfully they were treated by the Honor Flight volunteers. The most amazing thing to me was how some veterans didn’t want to go on the trip because they didn’t want someone else paying their way, even if they couldn’t afford it themselves. Unbelievable! To say they earned it is such an incredible understatement. They risked life and limb, witnessed the unthinkable, fought the unstoppable and accomplished the impossible, and they won’t take a free trip to D.C. to see their own memorial as a thank-you from those who get to live in freedom because of their bravery. It’s no wonder they’re referred to as the “Greatest Generation.” That’s an understatement as well!

Here are some photos from the event. Unfortunately, many of the veterans slipped out before I was able to ask them to sit down for a portrait.

This is Kenny…doing something.


This WWII veteran walked home.


Kids from the school down the street made several “thank you” cards to be placed on the tables. I particularly liked this one.









Heinen’s donated this cake.



The Arabica downstairs donated cookies.









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