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FRIENDSHIP AND FLIGHT OF A LIFETIME

Grinnell Regional Medical Center friendship helped Navy veteran find a seat on the latest honor flight

By MELISSA HAYES, powcr@dmreg.com

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World War II veteran Loren "Ike" Eickhoff, right, hugs Sheila Beach prior to a recent Honor Flight event at the Holiday Inn, Des Moines-Airport/Conference Center. Beach was instrumental in helping Eickhoff get on the most recent flight to Washington, D.C., sponsored by Hy-Vee and Casey's. Beach is an employee at the Grinnell Regional Medical Center while Eickhoff volunteers at the hospital.

Every morning by 6 a.m., Loren Eickhoff has coffee perking in the surgery waiting room at Grinnell Regional Medical Center. As a long-time GRMC volunteer, Eickhoff knows that a kind word and a hot cup of coffee helps ease the nerves of family members whose loved ones are having surgery.

At the same time, employee Sheila Beach opens the admitting department before dawn to assist patients checking in for surgical procedures, blood draws and X-rays. She depends on Eickhoff to help patients find their desired destination at the medical center.

 “Ike has always made my job easier,” Beach says. “I have always wanted to repay him for his kindness to me and the patients. When I learned that he was a World War II veteran, I knew what I wanted to do.”

Beach made it her mission to help Eickhoff, 81, participate in the third and final Central Iowa Honor Flight to the nation’s capital. She downloaded the application form from the Central Iowa Honor Flight web site, then completed and returned the form on Eickhoff’s behalf. In addition, Beach provided transportation to and from Des Moines so Eickhoff could board the Nov. 4 flight to Washington, D.C.

 “The people who served during World War II are very humble, and they don’t often talk about their sacrifices,” Beach notes. “Many enlisted because it was the right thing to do. World War II was such a pivotal point in history; we wouldn’t be the nation we are today without the service and dedication of these men and women.”

As if to prove her point, Eickhoff says he had second thoughts about making the trip.

 “I wasn’t in a combat situation. I didn’t lose a leg or end up in a wheelchair,” he says. “There are so many other veterans who deserve the recognition more than I do.”

Eickhoff served as a seaman in the U.S. Navy between 1945 and 1949. He was just 17 when he began work on a PC 486 Submarine Chaser; whose mission was to drop depth chargers while patrolling the Pacific Ocean for enemy submarines. When he was discharged in 1949, Eickhoff was stationed in Panama where his unit helped escort ships through the Panama Canal.

 “I joined the Navy because everyone else my age was going into some branch of the service, including my older brother. They were getting drafted, and I didn’t want to wait for that. I felt it was my duty to enlist,” Eickhoff says.

Despite Eickhoff’s early misgivings about joining his fellow veterans on the Honor Flight, he described the entire experience as “awesome.”  “I had tears in my eyes,” he said in discussing the strong support he felt in Des Moines. According to Eickhoff, hundreds of supporters waving American flags lined the streets as the buses carrying the veterans traveled to the Des Moines airport from the Holiday Inn on Fleur Drive.

“The bands were playing . . . the military was saluting . . . it was unbelievable,” he said.

Both Eickhoff and Beach praise Hy-Vee and its volunteers for funding two central Iowa Honor Flights, including the one on Nov. 4. Casey’s General Stores also sponsored an earlier flight. Each trip costs about $250,000 for 350 veterans to spend a day at the nation’s capital. The veterans were not only treated to full-course meals and entertainment prior to departure, they also received yellow Honor Flight jackets, shirts, and ball caps, along with two disposable cameras.

In Washington, D.C., the veterans toured the National World War II Memorial and other monuments and witnessed the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery. Gov. Chet Culver was on hand to welcome Iowa’s veterans to D.C. and to praise their many accomplishments.

Despite all the fanfare associated with the trip, Eickhoff says he’ll remember the one thing that matters most --- friendship.

“I can’t thank Sheila enough. For me, none of this would have happened without her. She took care of every detail, including having someone call my wife when I was gone. She picked me up at midnight (after the trip), then went to work the next morning. How many friends would do that?”

UPDATED November 19, 2009 12:17 PM

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