With red smoke streaming from canisters held between their feet and U.S., POW/MIA, 82nd Airborne Division flags fluttering from their backs, the combined team of two 82nd Airborne Division All-American Freefall Team Soldiers, a U.S. Army Golden Knight, and a U.S. Army Special Operations Command 'Black Dagger' flawlessly complete a 2000-foot freefall from the back of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter onto a three meter target to the awe and admiration of more than 600 veterans, spouses, family members and friends gathered at Navy Pier in Chicago for the 2008 Kup's Purple Heart Foundation Cruise on July 31.
The annual Chicago event began in 1945 and ran for 50 years allowing Illinois veterans a chance to enjoy a relaxing and entertaining cruise on Lake Michigan. Founder of the Purple Heart Cruise, and famed Chicago newsman Irving "Kup" Kupcinet retired the cruise in 1995 due to his advanced age, but Kup's grandson, David Kupcinet, brought it back on July 31, 2007 aboard Entertainment Cruise's Odyssey II cruise ship at Navy Pier.
"I thought about bringing the cruise back several times while my grandfather was still alive, but he always said, 'No,' and that he thought it wouldn't be the same anymore." said Kupcinet, "After he passed away in 2003, it didn't come up again until 2005 when I did some volunteer work for another local veteran's foundation.
"My family and I thought about it for a while and inquired with some specific people and decided in the spring of 2006 to start a foundation and bring the cruise back to life. The decision was based on the fact that we have a whole new generation of veterans returning from a whole new generation of combat and we wanted to make sure that our new young vets still had a Purple Heart Cruise waiting for them when they got home."
To pull off such an event takes the work of hundreds. The common goal that they hope to achieve is a very memorable event for the participants. Teamwork is something the U.S. military has always been good at and they were able to come together to provide something extra for the veterans gathered here as well.
After the freefall team secured their parachutes, they were welcomed to the event and led to their seats by a Navy Color Guard. "It's about the people we do it for," explains Sgt. Richard Sloan of the 82d Airborne Division's All-American Freefall Team, "that's what it's all about.
"The feeling of adrenaline [jumping] for a crowd and you want to do so well for them," explains Sloan, "like today for the Purple Heart cruise; this is for them and we want to make each and every jump we go to special."
The Great Lakes Naval Station band played music during the pre-cruise ceremony and as attendees climbed aboard the Odyssey II cruise ship for a four hour cruise along the Chicago shoreline on Lake Michigan.
Kupcinet began the ceremony by thanking the paratroopers for the awesome freefall display. Eleventh Ward Alderman James A. Balcer, a three-time Purple Heart recipient, led the crowd in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, spoke a few words expressing his gratitude for the gathered veterans and read a proclamation from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley who officially declared July 31 as Kup's Purple Heart Foundation Cruise day in the city of Chicago.
Secretary of State Jesse White followed suit with a proclamation from Illinois Governor Rod R. Blagojevich who declared July 31 as Kup's Purple Heart Foundation Cruise day throughout the whole state of Illinois.
Army Chaplain Capt. Gregory C. Moser led the crowd in prayer as he blessed the event and Col. Steven Huber of the Illinois Army National Guard thanked the veterans for their service before giving the podium back to Kupcinet to welcome the crowd onboard.
Many veterans made their way to a booth that the U.S. Air Force had set up, to receive free lapel pins and caps. Once onboard, they were treated to U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue demonstration on the lake.
Once the cruise was underway, the military's presence could still be seen, from several uniformed service members who joined the cruise simply to show their appreciation for their brethren from former and current conflicts, to the escort ships provided for the duration of the cruise by the U.S. Coast Guard.
From the veterans' conversations overheard on the vessel, the smiles on their faces, the pride they show as they shake the hands of the younger uniformed Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, one can tell that no contribution goes unappreciated.
Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Anderson, Regional Support Group west, said, "It's a day for me really to just look at all the veterans, and be thankful that they're here to get together and just thank each other and appreciate each other."
Simple conversation is what many of them have enjoyed the most during the cruise.
"I think it's a great thing. I love the way people are able to just sit and talk," Anderson said.