By MAGGIE MENDERSKI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Bill Hrudicka began a 50-day countdown to his Great River Honor Flight, knowing he only has a few months to live.
Outside the Vietnam veteran's home, an American flag and red, white and blue bunting hangs proudly on the porch. Inside, a small bed pushes against the window space in the living room. He wears his Honor Flight T-shirt like a medal.
Honor Flights for Vietnam War-era veterans are rare and reserved for the terminally ill. The organization prioritizes Korean and World War II veterans, whose numbers dwindle each day. As a hospice patient, the 73-year-old Hrudicka was able to be a part of the Sept. 26 flight from Quincy to Washington, D.C., becoming the first Vietnam-era veteran to take part locally.
"It was amazing to see all these people coming out and being there for us and appreciating us," he said. "I'll never forget this."
Hrudicka had previously visited Washington, D.C., before the U.S. Air Force Memorial was built. Hrudicka stopped treatment for his stage 4 prostate cancer and switched to hospice care in June.
The more time Hrudicka spent away from the intense medical regime, the more he seemed like his old self. He made it to his family reunion and his 55th high school reunion. Eventually, he began conversations with Trista Neisen, a social worker with Blessing Hospice, about what kind of last wishes he wanted to fulfill and how Blessing Hospice's Hope Project could help.
"It's kind of mimics the Make a Wish Foundation on a much smaller scale," Neisen said. "It's for people who say they have those end-of-life wishes. It's for things they've thought about, but really haven't had a chance to get done."
While veterans take Honor Flights at no personal cost, Hrudicka needed a little more assistance. He knew he would never make the trip on foot or alone, so the Hope Project provided the funds to send Missy Miles, a Community Care homecare aid, along for the ride.
Miles has worked in Hrudicka's home since his diagnosis in June 2012. She cared for him during times when he lacked the strength to move from his chair to his bed. She saw him hit his lowest point during treatment and watched him steadily regain strength and comfort on hospice.
"He's living life and doing what he wants to do," Miles said. "We're trying to help him as best as we can."
Hrudicka and Miles joined 31 Korean War and World War II veterans and a team of caregivers from the Tri-State region on the 24-hour journey. While his story differed from his travel mates, Hrudicka said the veterans felt a sense of brotherhood.
Hrudicka served as an airman first class in the U.S. Air Force from 1959-1963 and then in the reserves until 1965. He served his country mostly from behind a desk, but worked as a guard during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
"I was a 22-year-old kid scared to death because I thought for sure we were going to be in a major, major war," he said. "I thought it was going to be a nuclear war."
Hrudicka had only hoped to see his memorial, but the overflow of gratitude and American pride left more of a lasting impression than the monument itself. Decades ago he had stood against protesters who wanted to burn the American flag during the Vietnam War. Years later, lines of motorcycles guided the veterans on the highway and individuals packed the overpasses waving flags.
The journey reached its end at John Wood Community College where a large crowd greeted the returning veterans.
"I thought there was a basketball game going on, that's how many people were in there," he said.
A few days later, the veteran struggled for a few words to summarize his trip. His search for a single word led to anecdotes of appreciation for the military officials who met the Honor Flight at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery and Miles, who pushed his wheelchair the entire trip.
When words couldn't tell the story, light gasps and brief tears of gratitude did.