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CNY veteran receives centenarian salute for 100th birthday

WWII veteran James Sakezles celebrated his 100th birthday at St. Sophia's Greek Orthodox Church in Syracuse.
Ava Pukatch
WWII veteran James Sakezles celebrated his 100th birthday at St. Sophia's Greek Orthodox Church in Syracuse.

A local veteran in our community celebrated his 100th birthday in a special way – by receiving a Centenarian Salute.

James Sakezles celebrated his 100th birthday with more than 100 family and friends at St. Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Church in Syracuse.

“When I was about 92, my son-in-laws said ‘You’re going to be 100,’” Sakezles said. “[And I said,] ‘Oh no I’m not going to be 100.’ And here it is. It went by real quick.”

Sakezles served from 1943 to 1945 during World War II and fought in Normandy on D-Day. He flew on the third mission for Honor Flight Syracuse in 2014, which brought veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit their memorials for no cost.

Since Honor Flight Syracuse's first mission in 2012, more than 1,200 veterans from Central New York have flown on an honor flight.

Rob Schoeneck, vice president of Honor Flight Syracuse, said last year the organization celebrated the birthdays of about 25 veterans aged 100 years and older and plan to celebrate at least another 25 this year. He stressed the importance of thanking these veterans whether it be through an Honor Flight or even just showing for their birthday.

“We like to thank them a lot for a lot of different things,” Schoeneck said. “For us as a country and us as an organization just to keep reminding these veterans how special it was that they chose to raise their right hand and took the oath to defend the constitution and went off and did what they did. We just have to keep reminding them and thanking them for their service.”

Diane Zdan heads up the Centenarian Salutes for Honor Flight Syracuse. She said the celebrations started during the COVID-19 pandemic because they weren’t able to fly any veterans to Washington, D.C.

“We didn’t want our veterans to feel forgotten,” Zdan said. “The centenarian program is celebrating all veterans that are 100 years old [or older.] I’m just hoping we keep getting more. Every year we get more and more that come in.”

During the celebration, Sakezles was presented an American flag that had flown over the nation’s capital by the 174th Honor Guard and a patriotic quilt from Honor Flight Syracuse.

Reflecting on his key moments over the past 100 years, Sakezles pointed to family and his marriage to his wife, Mary.

“What I am thankful for is this last April we celebrated our 75th anniversary,” Sakezles said.

The next Honor Flight Syracuse mission is scheduled for April.

Ava Pukatch joined the WRVO news team in September 2022. She previously reported for WCHL in Chapel Hill, NC and earned a degree in Journalism and Media from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Ava was a Stembler Scholar and a reporter and producer for the award-winning UNC Hussman broadcast Carolina Connection. In her free time, Ava enjoys theatre, coffee and cheering on Tar Heel sports. Find her on Twitter @apukatch.