A Few Steps That Go a Long Way

A few years ago, I wrote about three local veterans and their experiences before, during and following their service.

Each in his own way had an amazing story to tell: Jim Baskerville of Manhattan, trained as a gunner, and waited seemingly interminably in Germany to get orders for Vietnam, before being sent home just before the pivotal Tet Offensive.

Richard Spangler of Wilmington, who hated milking cows so much he joined the Navy during World War II, even though he didn’t know how to swim. He wound up serving on the infamous U.S.S. Birmingham, a ship under siege by the enemy for most of one 42-day period, one day with 26 attacks.

And John Kestel of Wilmington, who was sent to Vietnam, trained as a radio operator, but since there was “nothing going on,” he said he was more of a “Radar O’Reilly,” wheeling and dealing to make sure the day room had enough beer and snacks. He, too, made it home before Tet.

Kestel said he always felt indebted to the veterans who saw the horrors of war, and came home with those nightmares. Or maybe they didn’t come home alive, or at all.

So, when he farmed, even if it were a picture-perfect day, Kestel would park his combine and head over to Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood to help with the honor guard and make sure a veteran has someone attending his or her final service.

“That’s the last honor they get,” he told me for that story. “After their whole life, only two people show up to their service? It’s so freakin’ sad. They’re heroes. I was just living the good life.”

Not quite as much now, though. Though he came home from Vietnam without a scratch, Kestel during the past several years has suffered from various illnesses, some requiring many weeks in the hospital. Doctors told him these illnesses were tied to exposure to Agent Orange, drifting through the valley toward his base.

Kestel stepped down as commander of Manhattan American Legion Post 935 because of his illnesses. But so long as he can get on two feet, he still volunteers through the Legion for honor guard duty one day a week at the national cemetery, scheduling around visits to the Will County Veterans Assistance Commission Clinic in New Lenox. For a time, he chaired the VAC board.

For Kestel, giving one last honor to veterans is that important. And he’s asking those who have some time, and good health, to help provide that honor, before the day when they’ll deserve it themselves.

Generally, Lincoln cemetery doesn’t have its own honor guard perform services on holidays. But the Manhattan Legion does, as well as some other legions, like Wilmington, which was the first to volunteer when the cemetery opened.

So on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day of service, Kestel and the Manhattan honor guard performed seven of the 11 services that day at the cemetery.

“We’re like Paladin from the old ‘Have Gun -- Will Travel,’” Kestel joked. “We go when we’re needed.”

They like to have at least seven in the honor guard, so each can fire three shots for a 21-gun salute. “But even three guns is better than none,” he said.

And these days, with honor guard members getting older, the order, he said, is more like, “Forward, shuffle,” instead of “march.”

Regardless, Kestel said families of the departed appreciate having a military recognition, including a prayer and folded flag.

But there are dozens of burials each week, he said, and sometimes, even with the national cemetery having its own honor guard, it’s tough to keep up. And sometimes, they can’t, meaning only two or three people show up.

Kestel said people who are interested can join a Legion like Manhattan that has an honor guard, or if you have more time, call the national cemetery at 815-423-9958 and ask for Cecilia, or call his personal number, 815-791-4478, to sign up with his group in Manhattan.

“I think it’s a great honor,” he said of performing with the guard. “And I think the cemetery is the most beautiful place in Illinois.”



The Will County Farmers Weekly Review

January 25, 2018