In 1958, when Robert Radosevich was 18 years old, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
It was the Cold War, and because of the draft, several of his friends had already joined. He felt it was his turn to step in and offer to defend his country, he said.
“It was the time of my life,” the Collinsville native said. “There are some good memories, as well as a few bad ones.”
On Sunday, 61 years after he originally joined the armed forces, Radosevich was one of hundreds of local veterans honored at the Collinsville Hometown Heroes celebration. He and eight of his family members arrived at Gateway Center on a sunny afternoon to listen to speakers, hear an Air Force band play and remember the metro-east men and women who had served, just ahead of Veterans Day on Monday.
The Hometown Heroes program honors war veterans from Collinsville on Memorial Day and Veterans Day by lining the streets of the city with banners featuring the names, faces and enlistment dates of those who have served. For his birthday on Oct. 15, Radosevich’s two sons purchased a banner to honor him.
Earlier this month, Hometown Heroes also unveiled plaques with names and faces of those local veterans. The plaques will be permanently displayed at Gateway Center. The 375 tiles were printed by Troy Gilliland, of TK Ink, who donated them to the program.
“This is nice because now people can bring their relatives from out of town here and show them how they’re being honored year-round,” said Jennifer Kruep, who is part of the program’s committee and the daughter of a military veteran who has his own banner with the program.
The program’s annual celebration allows the community an opportunity to come out and hear the stories of people from right in their own town, Kruep said.
“There’s an overwhelming gratefulness we all feel,” said Jennifer Osaben, another committee member.
The event filled the Gateway Center’s reception space, with faces young and old alike. Casey Fulton, an Iraq War veteran who was honored with a banner in 2015, said bringing his children to a ceremony like this is important.
“If we don’t listen to history, it’ll be lost,” he said. “It’s emotional to me still. I want my kids and their friends to be able to see this and listen to the experiences of other veterans.”
Collinsville Mayor John Miller, himself an Air Force veteran, echoed the same sentiment during his speech at the event.
“Our children must be taught about the sacrifices that have been made on our behalf,” he said. “If we don’t teach our children about war, we will continue to have these problems. History deserves telling and retelling.”
Miller also spoke about how in today’s culture, it’s a “shared American experience” to know someone who has served, or to at least understand and empathize with stories of war by way of embedded journalism, books, TV and movies.
“Something has changed of the way Americans think of their heroes that transcends politics and cultural differences,” Miller said.
Radosevich, who spent exactly four years and four days in the Navy, agreed. He said there really is something different about celebrations like Collinsville’s.
“War is bad, but that’s the way of the world,” he said. “People have been fighting since the beginning of time, but people nowadays recognize that sacrifice.”