A balloon with a purpose: POW-MIA display to honor soldiers at Steamboat festival
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Luke Cesnik started flying planes when he was 15 years old. He got his pilot’s license, and after serving in the Air Force in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War from 1971 to 1972, he used the GI Bill to get licensed as a commercial pilot, multi-engine pilot, instrument-rated pilot and flight instructor.
In 1990, a friend gave Cesnik a ride in a hot air balloon. In the first five minutes after launching, he felt pretty uncomfortable.
After 30 minutes, he had a plan. “I can do this,” he thought.
“I figured I could just add that to what I was doing,” said Cesnik, who’s based in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
Soon after, Cesnik was invited to join a St. Cloud-based organization called Freedom Flight, which seeks to honor and increase awareness of missing Prisoners of War — Missing in Action. To increase awareness, the all-volunteer Freedom Flight members fly POW-MIA hot air balloons at balloon rallies, city festivals, veteran functions, parades, dedications and ceremonies across the country.
This year, Cesnik marks his 20th year as president of Freedom Flight.
“We want people to know that we’re not forgetting about those who haven’t come home,” Cesnik said. “It’s also to let the family members know that we won’t forget.”
Once people see the balloons and read the educational cards that Freedom Flight hands out, Cesnik’s hope is that they will be inspired to pick up the phone and call a senator, demanding that POWs be brought home.
Freedom Flight also works with a Minnesota facility called Eagle’s Healing Nest, which supports veterans and their families who are struggling.
“We’re trying to take care of the people who aren’t doing so well and keep them in a good place in life,” Cesnik said.
In the past year, Freedom Flight has also facilitated the identification and homecoming of more than 150 people’s remains, including soldiers from World War II and Korea, according to Cesnik.
Cesnik will be flying a POW-MIA balloon at this weekend’s invitation-only Hot Air Balloon Festival for the third time.
“We’ll continue to fly these balloons in freedom for those who gave up theirs,” Cesnik said.
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