Dale Johnson of Eau Claire stepped onto a plane in La Crosse at 6 a.m. Saturday, followed by his three younger brothers, about to fulfill a three-year dream.
Johnson, 81, and his brothers were chosen this year for Saturday’s Freedom Honor Flight, a daylong trip for veterans to visit military memorials and national monuments in Washington, D.C.
The brothers — Dale Johnson; Sam Johnson, 80, of Crandon; Harry Johnson, 77, of Greenwood; and Ray Johnson, 75, of Tomah — grew up in Greenwood. All four served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War era.
Ray Johnson began the application process in 2016, Dale Johnson said.
La Crosse-based Freedom Honor Flight has offered flights twice per year since 2008 for veterans from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa to visit veterans’ memorials in Washington during a day trip.
“I think it took close to three years before we got selected,” said Harry Johnson, who served two years of active duty in Korea in the mid-1960s.
But from the start, one thing was certain: The Honor Flight would be a family trip, Dale Johnson said Monday: “We decided when this came up that we’d like to all go together as brothers.”
“Not only do they have a strong bond, but they’re very good friends,” said Ginny Johnson, Dale Johnson’s wife.
Another longtime family friend, Air Force veteran Danny Rossow of Greenwood, also accompanied the brothers.
The five veterans were bumped back in line several times, since World War II and terminally ill veterans are given first priority, Dale Johnson said.
Each veteran flies with a guardian. Dale Johnson brought his daughter, Ann Mewhorter, and his three brothers brought their sons, Dale said.
About 95 veterans left La Crosse Saturday morning, and just an hour and 45 minutes later, they landed at the Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va.
When the veterans stepped off the plane, an orchestra, cheerleaders and passengers from other flights greeted them.
“There must have been 200 people waiting for us there,” Dale recalled.
“There were passengers from Washington lined up with suitcases behind them, shaking (their) hands,’” Mewhorter said. “It was really quite amazing.”
For Sam, who served three years of active duty and a stint overseas, tourists greeting the veterans at the World War II Memorial was a touching moment.
“They put their hand out and said, ‘Thank you for your service,’” Sam said. “When I think about that, I get emotional.”
Police escorted the veterans in buses to the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the national World War II Memorial, the Korean and Vietnam Veterans memorials and Arlington National Cemetery, Dale said.
“Now I know how the queen of England felt,” Dale joked.
The flight also brought back somber memories. While visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Dale found the name of a high school classmate, Gary H. Brux of Greenwood.
Brux died in Vietnam in October 1966, according to the U.S. National Archives.
Dale and Brux graduated in the same class and played basketball together, Dale said: “The wall was probably the hardest part for me.”
After the veterans watched the sunset from the Pentagon, a band and a fireworks display welcomed them back to La Crosse Saturday night.
Dale’s wife, Ginny Johnson, his sister and several family members celebrated the brothers’ service after their return.
“That’s quite a feeling to walk off the plane when you have hundreds of people there,” Dale said.
“Everybody cried when we got off the planes,” Mewhorter added.
For Sam, the camaraderie with his brothers and son — and the efficiency of the trip — made the flight stand out.
“I think one of the greatest things was the (work) that was put into getting this Freedom Honor Flight going and prepared and financed,” Sam said. “It’s just unreal. The staff ... did a precision job.”
Freedom Honor Flight is run by volunteers, and flights are funded by donations. On Saturday’s flight were 76 veterans from the Vietnam War era, 18 from the Korean War era and one World War II veteran, according to Freedom Honor Flight’s website.
While the Johnson brothers waited to make the trip, the most important goal was to stay healthy, Dale said.
“We’re pretty lucky because we could all walk really well,” Dale Johnson said.
The flight gave Sam Johnson fresh eyes for veterans’ service, he said.
“People ahead of us have preserved our freedom, and our freedom needs to be continually preserved,” Sam said.
To apply for an Honor Flight, visit Freedom Honor Flight’s website at freedomhonorflight.org.
Kayde Langer had planned a low-key Sunday in anticipation for her 21st birthday Monday. Those plans changed abruptly when Langer saw the racist message on her dorm room door Sunday morning.
The message, written in permanent marker on a paper avocado Langer had taped to her door, read “go back to the rez,” followed by a racial slur. Langer, a junior who is Red Lake Ojibwe, reacted with surprise and anger.
Langer had “pushed things under the rug before” but did not do so this time, tweeting a picture of the door Sunday afternoon.
Her tweet received significant attention. In response, UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Jim Schmidt tweeted, in part, Sunday evening: “There is no place for hate speech [at] UWEauClaire. The racist who wrote this despicable comment is not welcome on this campus.”
Schmidt issued a full statement Monday afternoon informing students, faculty and staff that the university is conducting a multi-department investigation into the incident. The investigation includes the dean of students, the Bias Incident Response Team, the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Housing and Residence Life along with aid from UW-Eau Claire police.
Schmidt condemned all forms of racism and hate speech on campus.
“This kind of racist slur is simply antithetical to who we are as a university that values equity, diversity, and inclusion,” Schmidt wrote. “UW-Eau Claire is committed to providing an exceptional educational experience that allows all students, faculty, and staff to thrive and succeed. I mean all Blugolds, without exception. When a member of our Blugold Family is targeted, we are all impacted and called to speak with one voice against bigotry, discrimination, and intolerance. This campus must act when hatred rears its ugly head.”
Regarding potential discipline, Schmidt wrote that “all resources governing university conduct, including Chapter 17 of State Statutes’ administrative code for the UW System and all related university or regent policies, will be used to address this situation.”
Mike Rindo, UW-Eau Claire’s assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations, said if the individual or individuals responsible are found, the university will go through an adjudication process to determine proper discipline, up to and including expulsion.
Langer was unequivocal about what should happen to the person or people who wrote the message, saying they should be removed from campus. However, she did not express confidence the individuals will be caught, partly because, for privacy reasons, there are no video cameras in dorm hallways.
Langer grew up in Osceola and is studying sociology with minors in American Indian studies and political science. She is beginning her second academic year at UW-Eau Claire after attending UW-Marathon County in Wausau for a year and is involved in student government, serving as a campus senator and vice president of the Inter-Tribal Student Council.
The racist message is the most severe incident Langer has experienced since attending UW-Eau Claire but is not an isolated event, she said. Last week, a derogatory term for an American Indian woman was written in pencil on her door.
Rindo said it is not the first time a racist incident has occurred at UW-Eau Claire, but he does not view it as part of a larger pattern on campus. Rindo found out about the incident Sunday around 5 p.m. and said he responded with sadness and anger.
Rindo was part of the university administrative team that met Monday morning to discuss the proper way to handle the racist incident. He noted that diversity and inclusiveness are part of the university’s values, and UW-Eau Claire has had a Division of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Student Affairs for three years. Rindo said conversations about those topics occurred for several years before the EDISA division was formed.
Langer intends to continue attending UW-Eau Claire but said more can be done to ensure she and other students like her feel welcome and safe.
“On campus at night is not a good spot for students of color,” Langer said.
Langer hopes to see large-scale changes implemented by UW-Eau Claire, which she said provides a “bubble of protection” for racist acts by students due to lack of accountability.
“We need to actually attack the system that’s protecting them,” Langer said.
Rindo said social progress has been made during his 19 years on campus but acknowledged that there is a long way to go. Rindo called the incident a complex problem that requires multidisciplinary efforts across campus.
“If there were levers that you could pull that would get you results, we’d already have done it,” Rindo said. “We’ve got a lot of smart people working on this and doing it in a way that we really, truly believe is going to move the needle, but you have to be persistent.”
Langer said all people, not only students of color, must call out troubling actions on campus. By shedding light on ugly incidents like the one that occurred Sunday, Langer hopes to raise awareness and help bring about a safer, more understanding campus climate.
Langer is still processing the incident but plans to keep the racist message on the door until UW-Eau Claire fully handles the matter.
“I want people to be educated on this,” Langer said. “I don’t want them to pretend like this situation didn’t happen.”
A day of celebration for Langer turned into meetings with university officials, interviews with media outlets and replies to messages on social media. Despite the largely positive response, Langer said the incident has been overwhelming and put a pause on her life.
“I turned 21 today,” Langer said. “I should be going out and having a good time with my friends, but I have to address this.”
Anyone with information about this incident is encouraged to contact firstname.lastname@example.org or Dean LaRue Pierce directly at email@example.com. Anonymous information about those responsible for this act can be reported at uwec.edu/diversity/bias-incident-response.
CHICAGO — On a sunny August morning at 31st Street Beach, Tyrone Dobson assembled 20 volunteers to pick up litter from the shores of Lake Michigan.
At first glance, the effort seemed unwarranted. After all, the tire tracks from a Chicago Park District beach groomer were still fresh in what appeared to be pristine sand.
But Dobson, senior volunteer engagement manager for the Alliance for the Great Lakes, knew better. He instructed the volunteers to take a closer look. Peering around their feet, the group noticed myriad pieces of trash enmeshed in the sand. They meticulously plucked plastic straws, plastic bottles, plastic spoons, plastic wrappers and plastic bottle caps. After two hours of scouring the area, the group had collected 56 pounds of trash.
“Every beach has its own persona,” Dobson said. “Loyola is family friendly so there will be diapers and toys. Montrose and North Avenue is party central so there will be beer cans. But on the whole, it’s always a lot of plastic.”
Plastics pollution in global waters has become one of the most complex issues of the 21st century. Scientists have identified giant gyres of garbage accumulating in offshore ocean currents. Examinations of dead whales and other large marine animals show they’ve ingested plastic items, like garbage bags.
Researchers say that plastic litter in the oceans is poised to outweigh the amount of fish by 2050.
Meanwhile, microplastics, particles that start out smaller than 5 millimeters or are broken down from larger items, have been found in the falling rain in Colorado, carried by the wind to remote regions of the Pyrenees mountains in France and surfaced in drifting snow in the Arctic.
However, it’s only been in the last decade that research into plastics pollution has gained urgency in the Great Lakes, the planet’s largest system of freshwater.
Plastic debris makes up about 80% of the litter on Great Lakes shorelines. Nearly 22 million pounds enter the Great Lakes each year — more than half of which pours into Lake Michigan, according to estimates calculated by the Rochester Institute of Technology. Regardless of size, as plastics linger in the water, they continue to break down from exposure to sunlight and abrasive waves.
Microplastics have been observed in the guts of many Lake Michigan fish, in drinking water and even in beer. Perhaps the most worrisome aspect is that the impact of microplastics on human health remains unclear. Plastics are known to attract industrial contaminants already in the water, like PCBs, while expelling their own chemical additives intended to make them durable, including flame retardants.
Because the problem is virtually invisible, sometimes it’s hard to attract attention to it.
“I think seeing is believing, and you can’t see a microplastic,” Dobson said. “When I first started, I was talking to a volunteer and she said something that has always stuck with me. When you see a forest fire afterwards, it’s black and charred, so you know that there’s a problem. Some of the water issues don’t follow that (rationale).
“To the naked eye, it’s a beautiful day. So a lot of people don’t think it’s a problem because they can’t see it at first glance.”
In July, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law a bill directing the state Environmental Protection Agency to examine the role of microplastics in drinking water and the Prairie Research Institute to make recommendations on the threat posed to human health and the environment. State Sen. Julie Morrison, the bill’s sponsor, said when she learned the extent of the plastics issue, she stopped using plastic bags and was among the legislators who advocated for a statewide tax on them. Though the tax failed, Morrison said she hopes education will spur more action on plastics pollution.
“We’re leaving a mess to the next generation — just a mess,” Morrison said. “We need to stop and understand the science behind plastics, especially the microplastics going into our bodies.
“I don’t think people realize. If you went up to people on the street and asked them, ‘When you drink water, do you think there are plastic bits in it?’ Most would probably say, ‘Well, no.’”
The Chicago Department of Water Management says it meets all state and federal regulations for drinking water, but it is not required to test for microplastics.
While there are still more questions than answers about potential health consequences, one thing is clear: Southern Lake Michigan is a hot spot for plastics.
Matthew Hoffman, the lead author of the Rochester Institute of Technology estimate, said population centers like Chicago and Milwaukee are large contributors to plastics pollution in Lake Michigan. In addition to trash that can drift into the water from beaches, wastewater treatment facilities are significant sources of microplastics.
Before a federal ban in 2017, some soaps and facial scrubs contained microbeads that were rinsed down the drain into waterways. The majority of microplastics are tiny fibers that break off from synthetic fabrics when people do laundry.
Once plastics enter the lake, they follow lake currents, potentially migrating to other states but largely remaining trapped at the southern end.
“Things from Chicago might end up on the shores in the state of Michigan,” Hoffman said. “In the Great Lakes, plastic could move to different states, different lakes, different countries. So that can be an interesting challenge if you want to clean up. Now you have to look at interstate regulations.”
What goes into Lake Michigan typically stays there. While water from the other Great Lakes moves downstream, Lake Michigan’s only major outflow is the Chicago River (and the water it intermittently exchanges with Lake Huron at the Straits of Mackinac). As a result, a drop of water that enters Lake Michigan stays for about 62 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Because some municipal sewage sludge is applied to farm fields, agricultural runoff can also be a significant contributor. Farmers who may use plastic materials to cover their seed beds (to regulate the soil temperature and moisture) may also be partly responsible for microplastics.
Tim Hoellein, an assistant professor of biology at Loyola University Chicago, has extensively studied litter on Great Lakes beaches and major waterways. Each, he said, poses its own threat to wildlife.
“The danger changes as it goes from macroplastic to microplastics,” Hoellein said. “With microplastics, we think about potential chemical exposures, abrasions that might happen internally in the lining of the guts. With larger plastics, we worry about materials being stuck in the guts. That would be the concern for sport fish and birds.”
In a study published last year, a team of researchers, including Hoellein, found that around 85% of fish caught from three major Lake Michigan tributaries — the Milwaukee, St. Joesph and Muskegon rivers — had microplastics in their digestive tracts.
In the sample size of 74 fish representing 11 species, the invasive round goby had the highest concentrations, possibly from eating filter-feeding quagga mussels, which scientists suspect may be accumulating microplastics. While detecting microplastics in the guts of Lake Michigan fish is significant, scientists are now studying if these pollutants build up or are excreted by the fish.
“One possibility is that it could just move through the digestive system and come out the other end without causing any harm,” Hoellein said. “But we don’t know how long particles stay in their gut. So I had a student do a project where she fed round gobies these acrylic fibers in fish food. She tracked how long it took to go in to out. It was pretty fast — faster than I thought. Within a couple days, plastics moved through. Not much was retained in their stomachs permanently.”
Scientists believe microplastics could move up the food chain as trophy fish, such as lake trout, eat round gobies.
Considering fish are typically gutted before they are eaten, human consumption of plastics from seafood isn’t a major concern.
But as microplastics break down into tinier and tinier pieces, the research is pivoting to nanoplastics, pieces of plastic so small they may be able to penetrate the membrane of blood cells. The concern then becomes if nanoplastics enter the bloodstream of fish, they might be passed onto humans who eat them.
At this point, however, research is thin.
For now, environmental organizations are focused on stemming pollution at the source. Laws, such as smoking bans and plastic bag taxes in Chicago, may be curbing some of the most prevalent litter. Consumers can take steps to mitigate their own plastics by reusing shopping bags, forgoing single-use straws or bottles and using microfiber-capturing balls or mesh bags in their laundry.