COD's Kevin Willman Gives Back to WWII Veterans

By Mike McKissack

College of DuPage Multimedia Services Producer and Director Kevin Willman has donated his time and skills for the past three years to a very worthy cause. During this period, Willman has been volunteering for Honor Flight Chicago, an organization dedicated to celebrating and honoring WWII veterans.

"I filmed a documentary on an Honor Flight that Cantigny helped fund in 2008," Willman said. "In 2011, I contacted Mary Pettinato, the co-founder and CEO of Honor Flight Chicago and that led to a discussion about her idea to document every flight and give each veteran a DVD of the trip."

Willman has since documented 19 flights; an experience he says has its own personal resonance for him.

"My grandfather was in the Pacific on the U.S.S. Idaho during WWII," Willman said. "I never got to talk to him about it. However, through this program, I am able to  form fun relationships with many veterans, with a lot of kidding and joking going on through the day. That makes me feel closer to my grandfather."

Honor Flight Chicago, a 501c3 non-profit organization, was founded in 2008 to recognize World War II veterans by flying them all-expense-paid to Washington D.C. for a day of reverence, remembrance and celebration. Honor Flight Chicago relies on more than 700 volunteers to raise money for the flights and provide veteran outreach, community and school education, public relations and logistical support. To date, 4,612 out of the estimated 25,000 veterans in the Chicago area have flown with Honor Flight Chicago.

Currently a resident of Winfield, Willman studied television production at Columbia College and following a ten-year career as a freelance media producer, joined College of DuPage as Multimedia Producer and Director in 2000. In addition to producing the College's monthly video news program "Images," he produces a variety of promotional, educational and training media.

Describing a typical flight, Willman said after pre-packing his equipment the day before, he arrives at Midway Airport at 4:45 a.m. to document the arrival of the veterans.

"An interesting part of the morning is capturing their faces as they are unsure of what is really going on at first. However,  the volunteers truly make them feel welcome and get them excited for the trip," he said.

Willman added that the veteran's apprehension turns to excitement as they approach the gate and are serenaded by the Legacy Girls, a tribute to the 1940s era Andrews Sisters musical group. After arriving in Washington D.C., the veterans are first honored by a water cannon salute as the plane taxis to the gate. At the WWII Memorial, the veterans spend some time exploring the site, which is followed by a ceremony featuring the color guard, a performance of the "Star-Spangled Banner" and a moment of silence. After the ceremony, the veterans visit the Lincoln, Korean and Vietnam Memorials before returning to Chicago.

Willman said he is proud to participate in honoring this historical generation and that one of the most gratifying aspects of this service during the trips is the appreciation that citizens show the veterans.

"Another great part about these trips is how amazed the veterans are at the people who come up to thank them for their service and want pictures with them," Willman said. "This happens at every stop we take and I love documenting that."

According to Willman, the day is filled with the veterans' stories of war, fighting, coming home and starting their lives again. He said one of the most powerful tales was told by the daughter of one of the participating veterans.

"She told us that her father had problems sleeping every night since the war and really didn't talk much," Willman said. "He slept well the night he came home from the Honor Flight and the next morning told her everything about the trip. The following night, he went to bed and passed away in his sleep. She told us how happy this trip made him and that it was just what he needed to find some peace."

Willman also said he is pleased with the work College of DuPage has done to assist veterans.

"The Veterans Services program at College of DuPage does a great job finding, recruiting and helping veterans with their education," Willman said. "The College's involvement in the community with programs like Operation Support Our Troops as well as winning the Governor's Excellence in Education Award says a lot about the College's commitment to veterans."

The Veterans Services program at College of DuPage provides personal assistance tailored to the needs of veterans in a variety of areas including Counseling and Advising, academic assistance, career placement and benefits information. COD also recognizes a number of tuition-based veteran education bills, and accepts the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which provides a maximum benefit of free tuition, a monthly housing allowance and a yearly book and supply stipend for qualifying veterans. Designated a "Military Friendly School" by G.I. Jobs for five consecutive years, College of DuPage is also the first community college ever to receive the Governor's Award for Excellence in Education by the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.

For more information about Veterans Services at COD, visit www.cod.edu/admission/veterans.

Pictured: Kevin Willman (left) with WWII veteran Bob Agramonte.