Ward an unstoppable force for veterans

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Tony Ward (left) and Greg Hopper

If you visit Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital in Hines, Illinois, you have a 50/50 chance of running into veteran Tony Ward doing his “rounding,” as he calls it, three to four times a week.

For years, the 72-year-old has been a patient at the hospital, where over time he’s become a fixture, walking the halls and chatting with patients and their families to see what they might need. He started by joining a cancer support group, then underwent suicide prevention training. He now serves on the hospital’s mental health commission and chairs its patient and family advocacy council.

Sometimes, his phone rings at 2 a.m., a veteran needing to vent on the other end, Ward says. “I get up, make a cup of coffee or a glass of iced tea, and I talk as long as they need talking.”

Of Italian descent on his mother’s side, Ward serves as president of Combined Veterans of Berwyn, where he lives. He has walked with a prosthetic brace since he shattered his left kneecap in a fall in 2017. He is also an 8-year cancer survivor and continues to get treatment every three months. Overall, he’s undergone more than 44 surgical procedures, he says.

Those who know Ward describe a man with a lion’s spirit, undaunted by his daily pain and physical challenges.

“Failure is not in his vocabulary,” says his fellow veteran and close friend Greg Hopper, who serves as vice president and treasurer of Combined Veterans of Berwyn. “I always say, ‘If you’re not up for it, we don’t go today.’ But no, that’s not an option. Nothing stops him.”

Ward is passionate about helping veterans and never hesitates to provide assistance however possible, Hopper says. Ward also has worked hard to create a network of local organizations that can offer different services to veterans in need. “He’s a wealth of knowledge,” Hopper says. “And he’s stubborn, which is one of the things I like about him.”

Case in point: in September, Ward took part in the Berwyn Hispanic Heritage Month parade while holding an 8-foot pole with the U.S. flag in one hand and his cane in the other. “I walked eight blocks,” he says. “I stumbled once and I almost dropped it, but people came to help and then I went along.”

So where does he get the energy to remain so active? “I don’t like sitting around waiting for stuff to happen,” Ward explains. “I like to get up every day, strap my leg and go do something for someone else.”

Ward says he did four tours in Vietnam while serving in the U.S. Navy from 1967 to 1971. He worked as an administrative specialist until he retired in 2008. His wife, Judy, died in 2007 after 35 years of marriage; he has three children, a stepson and several grandchildren.

Combined Veterans of Berwyn raises money and makes donations to entities like local school and park districts, YMCA and Boy Scout groups, and holds an annual summer expo and luncheon, the latter free for veterans.

The group also holds ceremonies for Memorial Day and Veterans Day, as well as Pearl Harbor Day with a remembrance service on Dec. 7 at Chicago’s Navy Pier, where taps is played and a live wreath is thrown into Lake Michigan. “It’s very moving,” Ward says.

Ward’s favorite event is the yearly Christmas celebration held at a banquet hall for recruits from Naval Station Great Lakes. The veterans’ group rents charter buses to transport the recruits and on the way to the banquet hall, the buses are escorted by local law enforcement. Upon arrival, the recruits are greeted by the fire department and local elected officials. The highlight is watching the recruits’ faces light up when they are handed cell phones and tablets to call home, Ward says.

“They spend 10 weeks at Great Lakes and they are not allowed cell phones,” he explains. “So, it’s very personal, because they haven’t seen their loved ones in weeks. Many of them haven’t been away before on a holiday.”

About 250 recruits are expected to attend this year’s holiday gathering, the largest to date. In return, Ward is invited to their graduation ceremony, where he often gets thanked by parents.

“It’s a good feeling,” he says. “I tell them (the recruits), ‘Find some place in the community where you can help,’ so they can make a difference in somebody else’s life.”

Ward says that in his life, those who make a difference are his friends Hopper and Mark DiSanto, the secretary of Combined Veterans of Berwyn, who help him get around to attend events and medical treatments. “Without them, I wouldn’t be doing this,” he says.

He also enjoys woodworking, when he can, he says. He built chests for blankets and toys for all his grandchildren, and created a wood-and-plexiglass replica of the USS Arizona Memorial that is currently on display at the Italian American Veterans Museum in Stone Park.

“I even built my own cremation box and I prepaid for my funeral,” Ward says, adding, with a chuckle, “I want to go on my own terms.”

About Elena Ferrarin

Elena Ferrarin is a native of Rome who has worked as a journalist in the United States since 2002. She has been a correspondent for Fra Noi for more than a decade. She previously worked as a reporter for The Daily Herald in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, The Regional News in Palos Heights and as a reporter/assistant editor for Reflejos, a Spanish-English newspaper in Arlington Heights. She has a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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