UWL Athletic Program hosts 10th annual Veterans Day Breakfast


Photo taken by Gianna Fussell

On Friday, November 11th, 2022, Veterans Day in the United States, the Freedom Honor Flight in conjunction with the UWL Athletics Department hosted their 10th annual Veterans Day Breakfast. This event was held in the Mitchell Hall Fieldhouse. All current service members, Veterans and their families from the La Crosse area were invited to attend. Breakfast was served from 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.

UWL athletes volunteered to help put the event on. Prior to the breakfast, the Swim Team helped set up the night before, moving tables and chairs, setting the tables, and helping hang the American flag from the nets that hang from the ceiling of the gym. The morning of the breakfast, other athletic teams were present to help welcome the service members and Veterans by forming a tunnel and waving flags at the service members and Veterans when they entered. They also helped serve breakfast, and provide wait staff to the service members, Veterans, and their families sitting at the tables.

Anabela Gainizamanov, a UWL tennis player, worked the event. She said, “this event means a lot to me. Just giving back to the community and the veterans who do a lot for our country.” Another athlete who worked the event was Ella Harris. She said, “I think it’s really nice, some of my professors are veterans. It helps me connect to them better and it’s nice to give back to the community and make connections. And it’s good to see them come back and connect with each other.”

The event program started at 8:45 am and included a speech from Chancellor Joe Gow, Athletic Director Kim Blum, and from the Freedom Honor Flight President Ryan Clark. A Veteran named Jim Crigler, who was a former Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam, and Jordan Briskey, who organized the new Vietnam Wall in La Crosse, also spoke. The UWL band also played along with fifth graders singers from the North Woods International School.

The Freedom Honor Flight in La Crosse was founded in 2008 with the goal to fly Veterans to Washington D.C., and is a branch of the national Honor Flight Network. Once in Washington D.C., the Veterans would visit the memorials that are placed in their honor. The trip is in one day, and Veterans visit memorials such as: the World War II Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Vietnam Wall, Lincoln Memorial, and the Marine Corps War Memorial. If time allows, other memorials are visited as well. The Freedom Honor Flight in La Crosse is not given funds by the government and does not have paid staff; rather it’s a community of volunteers who come together to put the event on, and is funded from donations. Patti Lokken, a director of the Freedom Honor Flight, became involved with the honor flight from the first meeting in 2008. “I’m so grateful for my freedom, and to be able to thank them and honor them for what they’ve done from all the years past to the wars today. It’s such a privilege and an honor to be able to do that,” Lokken said. The Freedom Honor Flight site can be found here.

John Haack, a United States Air Force Veteran, was present at the breakfast. He joined the military in 1972 and served in 1976. “Veteran’s Day to me means everything about the gentlemen that served and that took the oath, up to and including giving their life.” He also said, “freedom wasn’t free. Never is, never will be. That’s the way it is. This is America. I mean every time you hear something that we’re split and divided, this is the best country in the world. We work through it. Democracy is where everybody works with everybody else. These are the Veterans.” He said that he feels honored to be a Veteran, “this is 2% of the population that served their country. And that’s it. Only 2%. I feel honored to be with these men and ladies and it makes me proud. It makes me smile.” He also said the most important thing he was going to do on Veterans Day, though, was to walk with his eight year old granddaughter at her elementary school, because she asked him to.

A group of men Veterans were sitting together at the breakfast, two of whom worked for UWL and received Professor Emeritus title. One of the professors is named John Cleveland. Cleveland served in the Army, and was a Draft D. He has six brothers, five of whom served in the Army. They served in multiple places. “I was, shall we say, very fortunate. Many people were going to Korea but I somehow got into the US Army Security Agency and so I spent most of my time at Fort Devens, as an instructor. I had already completed my bachelor’s degree in Education, so I was an Army Instructor. I had a top secret clearance. Very fortunate,” Cleveland said. He went on to teach at UWL in the Psychology Department. “Veterans day used to be Armistice Day. We grew up with that which was based on World War I and World War II veterans. It means so much because so many people are not here to celebrate it.”

David Kampa served 22 years in the Navy. He started in 1959 when he was 17 years old. “Joining the service was the best darn thing I ever did, really,” Kampa said. He served 10 years on the west coast and 10 years on the east coast. “It means so much to all of us. Not to me, but to all of us. Just walking in here and all these students here are here to thank us for our service. It just does my heart good,” Kampa said. “I sometimes think we are sometimes losing our patriotism. But then when you see this, you know, the band, you, and all the rest of them here, honoring us all veterans, it brings it back.” In addition, Kampa also plays the accordion.

Roger Beckstrom served in an Army hospital. He said, “It’s a day of contemplation, I think. Thinking back to our years in the service, and just to thank them.”

Rob Wessler, who also received the title of Professor Emeritus, taught in the Music Department. He grew up during World War II and his oldest brother went into the Army. His brother received his induction notice on Wessler’s sixth birthday, but waited to tell the family until later that night of Wessler’s birthday. Wessler’s brother didn’t want to ruin the birthday party for his brother. Two weeks later, his brother was in camp. Wessler grew up in a city of about 516 people, and his town had parades for patriotic holidays. “I remembered the day was over, World War II, my mother was in the backyard hanging up clothes. And the church bells began to ring,” Wessler said. Wessler went to Bradley University in Peoria University. At the time, Bradley University required their freshman and sophomore boy students to enroll in ROTC. From there, Wessler went into the Advanced Corps and was commissioned on his graduation day as Second Lieutenant. He went to New York for a year and a half and was deployed to Saigon, Vietnam. “I wasn’t shooting at anybody, and as far as I know, nobody shot at me. But we could hear, and at night, see at the edge of the city ammunition going off. And you could see light in the sky of when it would explode,” Wessler said. “I had one foot in bed at 10:30 one night where I lived in downtown Saigon, and there was this huge explosion. I looked out the window and people were running everywhere. Pretty soon stretchers and bodies and limbs. So that sort of thing was a little scary at the moment but it didn’t last too long.” Wessler said that Vietnam was a good experience for him and he has since been back to Vietnam.