At 16, a fresh-faced lad who was long on good looks enrolled with the Minnesota State National Guard with an eye toward following in the footsteps of his father and uncle, both of whom served in the U.S. Navy.
The teen practically counted the days until he could enlist.
In May 1945, with his diploma from South St. Paul High School in hand, Donald Buska went directly to the U.S. Navy recruiting office to enlist.
He was rejected because of his nearsightedness.
Disappointed but undaunted, he knocked on the doors of the Coast Guard and the Marines. They, too, turned him away.
He was eventually drafted into the U.S. Army.
“The Army took anybody,” the 86-year-old veteran said wryly. “If you had a pulse, they took you.”
In those days, one of every 100 men in the U.S. Army would be transferred to the U.S. Marines; the U.S. Navy got three of every 100 men in the U.S. Army.
Buska was buoyed with hope as he jockeyed for one of three coveted U.S. Navy slots.
“I gave them a sob story,” he said with a chuckle. “I told them my dad and uncle were both on active duty in the Navy and they would kill me if I didn’t serve in the Navy as well. They felt sorry for me.”
His dream of following in his father’s footsteps was soon reality. It was December 1945.
The war was over.
He was assigned to the USS William Seiverling (DE-441) and served stateside.
The primary purpose of the destroyer escort was to protect ships in convoy. He was awarded the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, which was awarded to any member of the U.S. military who served in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He was also awarded the Good Conduct Medal.
“I never saw any action, but what the hell?” Buska said during an interview at his Billings home. “It was a learning experience. I learned how to respect others, how to get along with others and how to be a man.”
In the predawn hours of Sunday morning, Buska will be among 78 World War II veterans aboard the eighth chartered tour of Big Sky Honor Flight to the nation’s capital. A terminally ill Korean War veteran will also be on the trip.
The purpose of Big Sky Honor Flight is to recognize Montana’s World War II veterans by flying them to Washington, D.C. Top priority is given to terminally ill veterans. The centerpiece of the trip is a stop at the National World War II Memorial.
To date, 603 veterans have been on an Honor Flight.
Buska, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, has been in the care of Rocky Mountain Hospice since Feb. 12. COPD is a progressive disease that makes it hard to breathe.
He has never seen the World War II Memorial. He will be accompanied by the youngest of his four sons, Jeff, from Helena.
“I’m dying,” he said. “I’m a little apprehensive. I’m not sure I can do it physically.”
From the outset, organizers of Big Sky Honor Flight have underscored the urgency of getting the state’s World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the memorial. The men and women who fought and won the war are now mostly in their 90s. Nationally, they are dying at the rate of approximately 555 a day, according to recent U.S. Veterans Administration figures.
Though Buska will have a first-class seat aboard the flight, he doesn’t believe he deserves either the seat or the trip, which, in total, costs about $155,000. Veterans travel for free.
“I never felt I earned it,” he said, choking with emotion.
His living room swells with silence.
“I think he absolutely deserves it,” said Buska’s son, Thomas, 58, of San Diego. “When I joined the Navy, the Vietnam War was just ending. Protesters spit on the men as they came home. It is awesome to see a person’s service recognized, not vilified.”
Earlier this month, Rocky Mountain Hospice recognized Buska with a pinning ceremony and presentation of a certificate of appreciation, thanking him for his service.
Rocky Mountain Hospice has partnered with the “We Honor Veterans” program, which was developed in conjunction with the Veterans Administration and the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. The program is focused on healing emotional wounds.
“America’s veterans have done everything asked of them in their mission to serve our country and we believe it is never too late to give them a hero’s welcome home,” said Becky Hillier, media relations director for Rocky Mountain Hospice. “We endeavor to acquire the necessary skills to fulfill our mission to serve these men and women with the dignity they deserve.
Buska is also being featured in a national campaign underway by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. The campaign, called "Moments of Life, made possible by hospice," is designed to raise awareness about the joyous, special moments that hospice makes possible near the end of life. It is scheduled to launch in mid-May.
Most people associate hospice only with death, leaving them feeling negative about the industry and reluctant to engage with individual hospice organizations, Hillier said.
“But what really happens for people who choose hospice care is more living,” she said. “More meaning. More of the things that are so important to people. This is certainly what the Big Sky Honor Flight experience will mean for Don and his son.”
Buska’s wife, Mary Lou, was in hospice for 18 months before dying on Veterans Day in 2012.
The ninth and final tour of Big Sky Honor Flight is set to take off May 11-12.