SYCAMORE – The below-freezing temperatures couldn’t stop Ronald Slavenas from standing watch over the 141 flags posted Friday across the DeKalb County Courthouse lawn.
Slavenas’ memory of his son keeps him going. Slavenas was wearing green U.S. Army fatigues and his son’s military beret.
His son, 1st Lt. Brian Slavenas, 30, was piloting a Chinook helicopter for the Illinois Army National Guard on Nov. 2, 2003, when he and 15 others were shot down and killed in Fallujah, Iraq.
“It is an honor to serve,” the 82-year-old Slavenas said.
Slavenas, who was standing watch over the “Avenue of Flags,” for the fifth consecutive year, keeps his son on his mind each year while he guards the flags – 135 American flags, a flag for each branch of the armed forces and one prisoner of war/missing in action flag.
A 24-hour Veterans Vigil, during which honorably discharged veterans stand guard of the flags each hour, in honor of Veterans Day on Monday began Friday and will last until 4 p.m. Saturday. The Avenue of Flags will remain on the courthouse lawn through Monday.
Slavenas said he’s active in the American Legion.
“After my son died, the Genoa American Legion [Post 337] opened its doors and was very supportive,” he said. “I joined the Legion at that time. We appreciate what the Legion did.”
Brian wasn’t the only Slavenas to serve. Ronald served from 1955 to ’58. His oldest son Eric was a paratrooper and was part of the Grenada invasion. Marcus, Ronald’s middle son, was in the Marine Corps and fought in Operation Desert Storm.
Slavenas, a Lithuanian-born German immigrant, said he thinks about how fortunate he is to live in the U.S. and have the freedoms he enjoys.
“Being an immigrant, I can only be very happy about this country and wish it all the best,” he said. “We’re going through turbulent times right now, but hopefully we get our equilibrium back and keep our democratic spirit up.”
He said America symbolizes the democratic spirit.
“The freedoms we have, this is what it’s all about,” he said. “When you come to this country, you put your shoulder to the wheel and help out. That’s why I joined the military.”
Slavenas said Americans should appreciate what they have.
“We should chip in,” he said. “Start thinking in terms of not me, me, me, but we, we, we. What can we do for each other? How can we make this country better in an honest and unselfish way?”
Dwain Adkins, the caretaker of the Avenue of Flags, said the theme for the 24-hour vigil is “Veterans honoring veterans.” Adkins, like the 28 other veterans who will guard the flags, stands his watch from 1 to 2 a.m. Saturday morning. He said he’s glad Slavenas keeps coming back each year to guard the flags.
“Slavenas is one heck of a good veteran, and I enjoy talking to him,” Adkins said. “He’s a tremendous guy. I think he’s done this for every year but the first year [since 2013]. He’s been a very faithful vigil participant since then. He’s generally the one I choose to start this.”
Adkins served in the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division from 1963 to ’66 in Vietnam. He said the hour to stand guard over the flags is nothing compared with watches when he was on active duty.
“I pulled a lot of these graveyard-type watches,” he said.
However, he said, the one hour the veterans stand to guard the flags is a good test of a person’s endurance.
Slavenas and Adkins weren’t the only veterans standing outside for the start of the vigil. Steve Korth, who served with the U.S. Army from 1966 to ’69 and worked on communications for NATO in the Eifel mountain range in western Germany, is with the American Legions’ Arnold Heltness Post 403 from Rochelle. Korth said he was standing watch from 8 to 10 p.m. Friday.
He said he’s glad to guard the flags.
“It’s something I felt I needed to do,” Korth said.
Adkins said it is a pleasure and an honor to be involved in protecting the Avenue of Flags. He said during his time he’s met fantastic veterans and their families. He said the American flag means a lot to him.
“The flag to me represents the most fantastic country on earth,” Adkins said.