GRIFFITH – It’s difficult for veterans to be reminded of the horrors of war, but worth it when you are honored for your service and sacrifices with a day fit for a king.
“You have to go, it’s something to see. Despite the bad memories, you just have to face it,” said Vietnam conflict veteran Leonard Kulasa, 78, of his recent Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C. “It really is a fantastic trip, with all expenses paid for. There are all these people greeting you at the airports. We never got that treatment when we returned from Vietnam.”
An East Chicago native and lifelong parishioner at St. Stanislaus, Kulasa didn’t plan to become a soldier, but neither did he shy away from it. After graduating from St. Stanislaus School in 1959 and East Chicago Roosevelt High School in 1963, he attended Purdue University for a year before returning home to work at Inland Steel Co.
In just a few months, without his student deferment, “I was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1965 and sent by train to Fort Knox in Kentucky,” Kulasa recalled. He qualified for electronics school and, after passing flight qualifications, ended up training in Arizona.
As a 206E20 airborne sensor specialist, Kulesa operated the classified electronics on the SR71 Mohawk as the only passenger flying with a single pilot. By 1966 Kulasa found himself at Ft. Lewis in Washington, and he eventually shipped out to Vietnam in July of 1667 with the 244th Aviation Company, serving for a full year.
Kulasa has never talked much about his service “in country,” but his family knew it was a horrific experience. “I did what I was trained to do, I knew what I was doing, but when the planes fly the ‘missing man’ formations, I can’t look at it,” he said. “A fellow soldier told me not to make friends (in the service), because it will hurt too much when you lose one, and it did hurt.”
He keeps in touch to this day with one of his commanding officers, retired Lt. Col. Richard P. Keating, 91, in St. Petersburg Beach, Fla.
When Kulasa was separated from active duty at Ft. Nix, New Jersey in July 1968, “It took some time to get my head back (in shape) after what I’d been through,” he admitted. He returned to Inland Steel, where he worked until lung damage forced his medical retirement on Sept. 1, 1990.
Kulasa joined American Legion Post 369 in East Chicago a month after his return in 1968 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8141 in Calumet City, Ill. in 1983, and eventually served as post commander at both – 2001-03 at Post 369 and 2011-21 at Post 8141.
“They needed new leaders, since the veterans from WWII and the Korean war were getting up there in age,” he explained modestly. “I was involved in American Legion Baseball, festivals, family picnics and scholarship awards.”
In 2019, his sister, Theresa Child, helped Kulasa complete an application for the Honor Flight trip, but all flights were suspended when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020. “We finally got a letter this June that Leonard was on the list for the July 12 flight, but we had just one week to fill out more paperwork and confirm his acceptance,” Child explained.
Kulasa was invited to bring his own “guardian,” to serve as his escort, and his nephew, Larry Kaptur, of Oak Park, Ill., formerly of Highland, offered his services.
“We had to be at Midway Airport by 4 a.m., and we left at 6,” said Kulasa, who said the veterans were treated like VIPs. “There were all these people there greeting you and sending you off. The fire department water cannons formed an arch at the departure and at the landing at Dulles Airport in Virginia.”
The 112 honorees were whisked by motorcoach to nearby Washington, D.C., each with their guardian and a wheelchair to ease transportation.
“Our first stop was the Air Force Memorial, where I recognized the name of Dick Bong, the most famous American fighter pilot from WWII,” Kulasa said. “The color guard ceremony was pretty fantastic.”
Both Kulasa and Kaptur were on their first visit to the nation’s capital, and enjoyed the tour of the WWII memorial. “Every state is represented with a statue. You could see the Washington Memorial in the distance,” Kulasa said.
The Honor Flight group included one 99-year-old WWII veteran, 5-6 veterans of the Korean War, and 102 veterans who served during the Vietnam War, said Kulasa. The Vietnam memorial has four panels engraved with names of the fallen, he noted, while the Korean Memorial featured a grouping of seven-foot bronze statues representing U.S. soldiers on patrol in a rice paddy. “The sign on it said, ‘Freedom is not free,’” added Kulasa.
At the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Kulasa corrected the tour guide who mentioned only one type of spy plane used in Vietnam. “I told him about the gunship we used, and he said he didn’t know about that one,” Kulasa said.
After a long day of sightseeing, the Honor Flight returned to Chicago near 9 p.m. to find hundreds more family, friends and volunteers waiting to greet them, including Kulasa’s niece and her family, Renee and Mark Rotatori with children Thomas and Kellen, from River Forest, Ill.
Each veteran received a backpack filled with “mail call” letters of gratitude, handmade greeting cards, certificates, photos and other mementos.
While Kulasa never married, he has remained close to his siblings, including Child, president of the Polish-American Cultural Society, Isabel Kaptur, of Highland, and Janet Huke, of Washington.
These days, Kulasa has replaced airplanes with (model) trains as a proud member of the Hi-Rail Modular Train Club, which maintains an O Gauge layout open free to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays, September through May, at the Franklin Center in downtown Griffith.
Caption: Leonard Kulasa displays his original U.S. Army garrison cap and the medals that adorn it more than 50 years after he served in the Vietnam Conflict as a Specialist E4 with the 244th Airborne Company during 1967-68. Active in both the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars veterans organizations, he visited Washington D.C. on July 12 as an Honor Flight visitor. (Marlene A. Zloza photo)