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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Honored to be in the company of the ‘greatest generation’

Ed Cartoski, 94, visits the National World War

Ed Cartoski, 94, visits the National World War II Memorial on Saturday. He enlisted and served in World War II as soon as he graduated from Westhampton High School, becoming a Marine aviator. He was recalled for the Korean War, and upon retirement went to work as a test pilot for Grumman. He now lives in Greenport. Credit: Lane Filler

It’s not surprising that Honor Flight Long Island is so beneficial to the veterans whom the program takes to memorials built in their honor. Many of the World War II and Korean War veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, could never make the trip without the planning, competence and care the leaders and volunteers provide.

What was surprising Saturday, as the group executed its 38th such mission, is how beneficial Honor Flight Long Island was to its volunteers, and to everyone else these veterans came into contact with.

The worshipful attitude often adopted toward the “greatest generation,” those (mostly) men who fought in World War II and Korea, then came home and built the postwar America, can feel like false idolatry. Certainly, they battled long and hard at war, and worked long and hard in peace, but does that make them somehow better than the following generations, which also produced so many fantastic soldiers and wonderful citizens?

The answer came after nearly 20 hours with them, in airports and buses and parks and memorials, amid sweltering heat and the minor irritations of travel: Yup.

They are embarrassingly superior to the generations that have followed. Brimming with gratitude and patience. Easy to please and difficult to aggravate. And as concerned for the younger people on the trip to care for them as those younger people were concerned for the veterans.

The National World War II Memorial in Washington was completed in 2004. A veteran who was 20 when the war ended was then 79. The national Honor Flight organization and the Long Island chapter, which has served 1,455 veterans in 10 years, were created to help these veterans visit their memorial comfortably and safely and for free. Korean War veterans and their memorial are now a big part of the program’s twice-annual trips, according to Honor Flight Long Island president Bill Jones. And the group is beginning to transition to serving Vietnam veterans, too.

Walking bleary-eyed into Islip’s MacArthur Airport at 6 a.m. Saturday, my brain expected cavernous silence. It was greeted instead by an ebullient Jones overseeing a pre-dawn festival. Boy Scouts and current service members gave out handshakes and cheers, and Girl Scouts offered up all that and boxes of cookies, too.

Hundreds of people were there for the send-off, as there would be after 2 a.m. when we returned, three hours late.

Each veteran was pushed in a wheelchair as much as he or she would allow and escorted at all times by “guardians.” One such volunteer was assigned to each veteran. Some were family members, but many were just strangers moved by the opportunity.

My veteran was Ed Cartoski, 94, a World War II and Korean War Marine aviator who grew up in Westhampton Beach and was a test pilot with Grumman until he retired in the 1980s. Spry and agile, he’d let me push him in the wheelchair for a while before hopping up, always explaining, “I really need to walk more! Why don’t you ride and I’ll push?”

Cartoski lost his wife almost 25 years ago, and he has battled seemingly every type of cancer. Last year, he traded in the big family home where he raised five kids for an apartment at Peconic Landing, a retirement community in Greenport.

Cartoski is a cheerful and gracious guy, irreverent and sociable. But he will also tell you he misses his wife, and nearly all of his close friends are dead. He is not averse to making new ones, though. “You need to come out to Greenport,” he said. “We have great restaurants!”

I’ve visited these memorials before, alternately enjoying them and distracted by thoughts of my child and wife, as well as dinner reservations and the weather. Sharing these historical places with Cartoski and the others was a revelation. Washington, with its monuments and memorials and the mall, always has a weight and dignity to it. Yet seeing the Arlington National Cemetery with veterans whose comrades lie buried there and the war memorials with the veterans they honor is a far more moving experience, and a treasure.

But so were moments spent with these old warriors in buses and planes and airports.

“What a sandwich!” Korean War veteran George Krug exclaimed repeatedly to his guardian, volunteer Melissa McNamee, as he ate his Arby’s box lunch. Other veterans murmured in appreciative agreement. McNamee lives in Holbrook and had originally signed up to do the trip with her grandfather, James Collura, a Korean War Army veteran. He died in December, but she came anyway. She and Krug, Saturday, were soon buddied up, looking out for each other and taking in the sights.

“They really appreciated every part of the day,” McNamee said. “It was really such an awesome time. I’m so happy I went.”

That mood was practically unanimous. There was no contention of any kind. In 20 hours together, not one political conversation cropped up in my hearing. It was clear these veterans were politically aware and well-read, but there were no debates or arguments or diatribes. At one point, Cartoski said, “I think everyone ought to have to do some service when they’re young, like in other countries. And none of those exemptions.” That was as political as it got.

Tess Pierce Garber, of Jericho, didn’t have to serve, but she did, as a Marine during World War II. After graduating high school in Cleveland, Garber enlisted because she wanted to do her part.

She landed in Washington, where she would do everything from painting barns to harvesting crops, but her main duties were in the Signal Corps, gathering teletypes listing the names of those killed, wounded or missing in action.

You think about what Cartoski said, about these veterans who served in a war that involved nearly every healthy man, rich and poor, educated and not, and so many women, too, from every part of the country, and it’s hard not to be wistful. Is it so surprising that in this generation that served together, the officers who came home to be CEOs made sure the workers had pensions? Is it any less surprising that the generation of wealthy young men who did not deign to go to Vietnam or be thrown in with the working classes felt no need to provide such pensions even as their companies enjoyed record profits?

Relationships lead to empathy and compassion. The absence of relationships leads to contempt, or at least apathy. This nation was different when we were all in it together, when we had a common enemy and it wasn’t each other.

These veterans slogged through their wars and service, together, and then they came home to the daily grind of jobs and family. They put their backs into it, into life. They learned how to “hurry up and wait.” And they made for us a life and a nation so much more comfortable and easy than the one that formed them. We should be grateful to them. And far more like them.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.