An Unforgettable Flight
A Story City veteran puts health worries aside for an emotional adventure in Washington D.C.
He needed some coaxing, but now Lars Tjelta is so glad he changed his mind about the Story County Freedom Flight.
Lars almost didn't make the trip, even though it would have been his first time on an airplane since 1989, and, more importantly his first time in Washington D.C. to see the Mall memorials that honor veterans, like him.
Tjelta had heard about the Freedom Flight through the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. But the 80-yearold Story City resident has his share of health issues, including a condition that requires him to have regular blood transfusions at Mary Greeley Medical Center. Considering this and what he knew would be strong interest among other local veterans, Tjelta, a humble fellow, thought, "Let the rest of the guys go."
His family wouldn’t hear of it, though. At the urging of his wife and kids, the Korean War veteran signed up for the Freedom Flight. He became one of 148 Story County veterans selected to visit the nation's capital, in October.
"When I got there, I was really thankful I'd been pushed," he says. "I have a wonderful wife and family. I can't be more grateful for them."
You can't blame Tjelta for nearly letting health concerns prohibit him from taking the Freedom Flight. He has myelodysplastic syndromes, a disorder also called "preleukemia." Essentially, Tjelta's bone marrow doesn't make enough red blood cells. Since red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body, the disorder leads to severe anemia and a feeling of fatigue. Every few weeks, Tjelta receives a transfusion of packed red blood cells so his body will have enough to continue circulating oxygen. The treatments can take several hours, but provide Tjelta the energy he needs to do the things he enjoys such as caring for his home and yard. He’s also received treatments for kidney and bladder problems over the years, and has recently started doing dialysis treatments at home.
Although Tjelta has a complicated disease and sees a variety of specialists on a regular basis, he was given clearance by his entire medical team to go on the trip.
"They work so well together. None of my doctors said I couldn't go," says Tjelta. "The doctors and the nurses are just wonderful. They care about me and how my treatments fit into my life. They try to make everything convenient for me if they can."
Those health worries were a distant thought when Tjelta got on the plane
in Des Moines for the flight to Washington D.C. on Sunday, October 14.
"Everyone has something different that means something to them,"
What meant the most that day was being with a group of veterans who had served the United States in several wars, and his own memories of serving his country. Tjelta was in the U.S. Army and stationed in Korea from 1952-53. He served as a "radio man" in the infantry, spending much of his time on the front lines and frequently going out on dangerous night
patrols. Seeing the memorials, especially the newer memorial honoring veterans of the Korean War, was unforgettable.
"The memorials were so big, just so much bigger than I thought," says Tjelta, who still chokes up when he talks about the experience. "I had seen photos my whole life, but seeing the monuments in person was a once-in-a-lifetime chance that I never thought I'd have."
It was just a day trip, but it took months of preparation and fundraising.
"I can’t give them enough praise," Tjelta says about the trip's organizers.
"Every detail was taken care of, from candy bars in case we were hungry to doctors being on the plane with us in case we needed medical help."
He got back home very late that night, energized from the experience and ready to deliver this message about the Freedom Flight to other veterans: "If you get a chance, you should go. No matter what your health, don't worry, they'll take really good care of you."
Editor’s Note: Lars Tjelta died Saturday, March 30. We are honored to have had an opportunity to meet Lars and present this story. Everyone at Mary Greeley Medical Center extends their sympathy to Lars’ family.
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