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For a weary, emotional and grateful Donald Buska, it was mission accomplished.
The 86-year-old U.S. Navy veteran fulfilled his longtime dream of traveling to Washington, D.C., on Sunday and Monday to visit the National World War II Memorial.
The once-in-a-lifetime trip with Big Sky Honor Flight of Montana afforded him opportunities he had only imagined.
And, it was an honor that came just in time.
On Tuesday, Buska, who had been in hospice care since Feb. 12, passed away.
“He had the time of his life,” said Buska’s son, Jeff, who traveled with him to Washington, D.C.
“What a way to go. He went out on a high note,” Jeff said.
As the senior Buska prepared for the trip, he fretted over what to wear and what to pack. He settled on casual clothes and a pink Sony camera that belonged to his late wife.
He worried about whether he even deserved to go, since he hadn’t seen combat as a sailor during World War II. And, he worried whether he was too sick to travel.
Suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary, which makes it difficult to breathe, Buska had been in the care of Rocky Mountain Hospice. Hospice caregivers assured him he was well enough to travel.
Once in the nation’s capital, he snacked on a Dove Bar with his son on the National Mall, snapped photos of marble monuments with his pink Sony camera and shook hands with schoolchildren who were awe struck by their brush with living history.
When two Japanese tourists asked if they could take photographs with him, he agreed on one condition: Each must give him a hug in return. The tourists paid in full. He was in his glory.
On Sunday night, after a banquet dinner of chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans and cheesecake, he enjoyed his usual “night cap,” a double shot of Southern Comfort in his room.
On Monday, he connected with a former poker buddy from Laurel who was also on the trip. He toured the National World War II Memorial and posed for a class photo.
For the first time, he witnessed the Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery and found comfort in the calming water falls at the FDR Memorial. They reminded him of the camping trips he often took with his six children. It was an emotional stop.
He was ecstatic to be aboard a van that was escorted through the District of Columbia by police, complete with flashing lights and sirens, stopping motorists in rush-hour traffic to make way for the World War II veterans.
“He thought that was really cool,” Jeff said.
At Dulles International Airport, all the veterans were greeted with Mail Call. Family and friends had written letters of support and encouragement to each of the veterans. Buska had one of the largest packages. One of his granddaughters, Danielle Connors, had her middle-school science class write her grandfather as part of a class project.
“This is amazing,” he told his son, Jeff. “This is overwhelming.”
Back in Billings, the 75 veterans aboard the flight were celebrated as heroes and cheered on by hundreds of well-wishers, including local high school pep bands, dignitaries and comrades.
“He thought that welcome home was just neat,” said his son, Jeff Buska, 53, of Helena. “There were all these soldiers shaking his hand.”
Less than eight hours after that homecoming, Buska died at his West End home.
Buska went home after the homecoming celebration to relive the 37-hour whirlwind tour with some of his children, including his daughter, Donna, who traveled to Billings from Great Falls with her family to surprise her father.
They stayed up until midnight reading each of the letters he received. Buska shared highlights of the trip with his children over his familiar night cap.
“Cheers, Dad,” Jeff recalled saying.
“We toasted and we told each other we loved each other,” he said, choking back tears.
About 4:15 a.m. Tuesday, Jeff heard a crash. He discovered his father lying on the floor of the living room.
His father was gone.
“My dad went to go dance with mom,” Jeff said.
Becky Hillier, media relations director of Rocky Mountain Hospice and a member of the Big Sky Honor Flight Committee, said: “A final mission was accomplished in more ways than one.”