BTN LiveBIG: Covering an NU alumna’s program for WWII vets was a real ‘honor’

BTN LiveBIG: Covering an NU alumna’s program for WWII vets was a real ‘honor’

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During football and basketball games, BTN LiveBIG will spotlight notable examples of research, innovation and community service from around the conference. In-Game stories will provide more background on these features, and the opportunity to view the videos again.

As a film producer, I’ve been able to work in some pretty cool venues: professional and collegiate sports stadiums and arenas, high-tech labs, concert halls and museums. As great as those places are, sometimes the most powerful experiences happen in seemingly unexciting places. For instance, the baggage claim at Midway Airport in Chicago.

That’s where I found myself on Oct. 1. My film crew and I came to the airport to capture the homecoming celebration for Honor Flight Chicago, a program founded by Northwestern alumna Mary Pettinato. This organization flies World War II veterans — most of whom are in their 80s and 90s — to Washington, D.C., to visit the WWII Memorial and a few other monuments.

This whirlwind trip takes place over a single day: Participants fly out early in the morning and return in the evening — or, in our case, right before midnight. Given their late arrival time, I was worried we would be filming a bunch of cranky, older veterans exhausted from a long day of traveling. Boy was I wrong!

When we finally got word that their flight landed, I grabbed my crew and we headed upstairs with the leather-clad Patriot Guard Riders. As I stood outside of the security gate watching this group of veterans form a tunnel, each holding an American flag, I heard the bagpipes in the distance.

Early on in the welcome-home ceremony, I realized this was going to be one of those experiences that transcended my job. The band of bagpipes and snare drums led the veterans through the terminal to the Patriot Guard Riders, where each of them bent down to the veterans passing by in wheelchairs and said, “Welcome home! Thank you for your service!” I found myself getting lost in that moment, aware of the fact that this would be a lifelong memory for everyone here — me included.

As my eyes welled up, I thought, Back to work! I tapped my cameraman on the shoulder and said, “We have enough here. We need to go back downstairs.” We hopped on the escalator, and as we slowly rode down, we saw a large crowd of family members, friends, Boy Scout troops, school groups, other veterans and people who just got off a flight trying to get their baggage. With the Frankfort Brass Band playing in background, it was awe-inspiring to watch the veterans proceed through the teeming baggage claim. Each one was treated like a rock star, receiving high fives and handshakes and loud cheers of “God bless you!” and “Thank you for your service!”

Despite the long day, these veterans were full of energy and excitement. Some grinned ear-to-ear, some had jaws dropped and some were moved to tears, but I could tell all of them felt great pride. As I stood there trying to make sure I was getting the shots I needed while soaking up the experience, I realized how fortunate I was in two ways: that I was there to witness this incredible event, and that my job allowed me to tell this wonderful story.

After seeing the work of Pettinato and Honor Flight Chicago, I have a whole new appreciation for these brave heroes. With Veterans Day around the corner, I say to them, “Thank you for your service!”

By Jessica Stone

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