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An Exclamation Point on My Grandfather’s Service

An Honor Flight was a finale to a Korean War veteran’s life

spinner image john ghizas, wearing a korea veteran hat, poses with grandson in law justin frost in front of the korean war veterans memorial
John Ghizas and his grandson-in-law, Justin Frost, planned an Honor Flight so Ghizas could see the Korean War Veterans Memorial and other memorials in Washington, D.C.
Courtesy Alexandra Frost

My grandfather John Ghizas — known to us as “Dedo,” Macedonian for grandfather — was a Greek immigrant drafted into the U.S. Army and shipped off to fight in the Korean War shortly after he arrived in America. 

spinner image closeup of a rusty dog tag with the text thank you veterans engraved in it, next to a flag of the United States

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He started as a cook but was soon promoted to sergeant, leading men in combat. His experiences in foxholes shaped his philosophy of life. “If they tell you to dig one hole, you dig two,” he would advise his grandchildren.

Dedo is no longer with us — he died at 89 in 2017 — but before he left this world he was able to take an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., that was a capstone on his life and cemented his legacy for our family and future generations.

My husband, Justin, is a former history teacher, and when he first met my grandfather the two of them would dive into decades gone by. Justin got a firsthand account of what it was really like to see the Nazis invade Greece and to fight in Korea. 

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Justin was surprised to learn that Dedo had never been to Washington, D.C., and seen the memorials built there in honor of him and other veterans. History came to life for our whole family as they planned an Honor Flight, on which Justin would be Dedo’s guardian.

Dedo was 86 at the time and initially skeptical about the value of flying hours from Ohio to see some “statues.” But he soon started to become excited about wearing his Korean War veteran’s hat and spending time with hundreds of fellow vets during the trip.

spinner image a black and white headshot shows john ghizas looking at the camera in his army uniform
John Ghizas during his service in the U.S. Army.
Courtesy Alexandra Frost

His pride shone through. “Yep, this is what veterans do to be honored,” he told Justin. When they arrived at the memorials, crowds waiting in line moved aside and clapped as they passed.

Dedo was introspective as he approached the Korean War Veterans Memorial, taking in the 19 ghostlike stainless steel statues. “Typically he has a lot to say, and this time he didn’t,” recalled Justin.

“What makes that memorial so powerful is that it’s not a block of marble,” he said. “It’s made to look like the soldiers who were going through the field on patrol. It’s eerie, and the faces seem unsure. You feel like an active participant with these men. That took Dedo back to that time when he was digging foxholes.” 

A Korean War memorial employee shared a map of current-day North and South Korea that included a satellite image of the electricity grid. While South Korea was well lit, North Korea was in almost total darkness. The message was poignant: Because of the service and sacrifice of Dedo and his comrades, South Koreans experience a much better life. “Look at the lights, Justin,” Dedo marveled.

Later, Dedo and Justin were approached by three young South Koreans who had spotted the Korean War hat and wanted to talk. They told Dedo that he had saved their country and their lives. 

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“It was the opposite of every stereotype of the ‘young generation’ right now,” said Justin. “They really got it. They were, like, ‘Oh my God, we love where we live, we love our life, we know it’s because of what you all did.’”

After they had shaken his hand and taken pictures, Dedo turned to Justin and said quietly, “I didn’t know it even mattered that much.”

Two of our four sons —who are all under age 7—met Dedo and know he was a soldier. But their thoughts about this are scattered and scant. One day they came across the Honor Flight photo album, and Justin was able to share the memories from that day, along with images of Dedo in uniform as a young soldier. 

Though Dedo had gone, the trip allowed his memory and service to live on and his legacy to be passed down to his great-grandchildren. One of boys pondered what he had seen and reflected: “I’m proud Dedo was a soldier and that we are related to him.”

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published twice a month. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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