Ed Wehmer, the founder and CEO of Wintrust, opened the evening by expressing his profound gratitude for these men’s service to our country, recognizing that service in the Armed Forces was often a thankless job.
Three different generations graced the stage: seven World War II veterans, four veterans of operations within Iraq and Afghanistan and a cohort of young Eagle Scouts and Cadets who escorted the decorated servicemen. The Honorable Keith S. Brin introduced each of the veterans with a story of their heroic accomplishments and the historical context in which these accomplishments were made. The recollections of the sacrifices that they made for the love of freedom and country drove the audience to multiple standing ovations throughout the night.
Notably, two members of the illustrious Tuskegee Airmen of World War II were honored at this event: Lieutenant O. Lawton Wilkerson and Corporal Julian Johnson. Wilkerson was a B-25 pilot during the war and subsequently worked as a radio program executive while dedicating himself to community service. Johnson was a bombardier who went on to apply his degree in chemical engineering to jet fuel research and development following the war. The legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen is an incredible one—not only were they the first group of African American military aviator pilots, but they flew with distinction, meaning that no American bombers were shot down as their fighter escorts. Brin acknowledged that, despite their heroic and unparalleled service, the Tuskegee Airmen, along with other African American servicemen, returned stateside after the war only to be met with another battle: racial discrimination.
This was a heartbreaking yet important reminder that valiant men like Wilkerson and Johnson were systemically mistreated by the same people they had risked their lives to protect. The Tuskegee Airmen’s distinguished service helped pave the way towards the abolishment of racial segregation in the United States Armed Forces in 1948, but the discrimination they endured should never be overlooked or forgotten.
A local hero, Captain Breg Hughes of Barrington, was also honored at the event. Hughes served two combat deployments in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Towards the end of his deployment as a Special Forces officer and Green Beret in Afghanistan in 2012, and only a week before the birth of his second son, his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb and burst into flames. The explosion killed one of the passengers and wounded five. Hughes sustained third-degree burns on nearly half of his entire body and had to undergo 10 skin grafts and multiple surgeries. He was hospitalized for four months before he was able to meet his newborn son. He has now recovered, thanks in part to the hard work of dermatologist Dr. David Van Dam of Barrington. Since his recovery, Hughes has earned an MBA and currently works as a financial advisor.
After an evening of applauding the resilience, selflessness, and sacrifices of this remarkable group of American heroes, U.S. Representative Randy Hultgren concluded the evening by awarding each of the veterans with American flags that were previously flown at Capitol Hill. In his closing remarks, he emphasized:
“Abiding by the commitments we’ve made to our veterans…is what brings
us together in DC.”
In his address to the veterans, he expressed his own sincere appreciation for their service, proclaiming, “We are so honored to know you, to be able to recognize you, so be able to thank you. And I want to be the first, along with all the rest of us, to wish you—it doesn’t sound right to say ‘happy Veteran’s Day’—I think the right word is a gratitude-filled Veteran’s Day. We are so grateful for what you’ve done, and we’ll never forget what you’ve done...Thank you, thank you, thank you.”