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New Lithuania Post stamp designed by 446th airman

The stamp was officially issued in Kaunas, Lithuania

Lt. Col. (Dr.) Arunas Banionis, a flight surgeon with the 446th Aerospace Medicine Squadron, displays a page of Lithuanian stamps, Aug. 11. Banionis created the design, which placed first in May. Photo credit: Master Sgt. Jake Chappelle

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"I always wanted to be a pilot in the Air Force, but my vision wasn't perfect," explained Lt. Col. (Dr.) Arunas Banionis. "Then I got accepted into medical school and needed to figure out how to pay for that when I was offered a scholarship through the Air Force."

Once his children were born, he transferred into the Air Force Reserves so that he could avoid having to relocate. Since 2002, Banionis has served with the 446th Airlift Wing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in the Aerospace Medicine Squadron as a flight surgeon.

Banionis' latest accomplishment, however, has little to do with his medical skills or the military, though it is still tied to flying.

Two Lithuanian-American pilots, Stephen Darius and Stanley Girenas, who had both immigrated to the U.S. and served in the military, departed New York's Floyd Bennett Field on July 15, 1933, in their aircraft christened the Lituanica. Unfortunately the plane crashed in bad weather over Germany two days later and both men were instantly killed.

"Almost every Lithuanian town and city has a street named after both men and the 10 Litas bank note also features them," Banionis stated. "Their goal was to put a small fledgling democracy on the map and that mission was accomplished. They are heroes."

This year marked the 80th anniversary of the historical flight and events were planned in both Lithuania and Lithuanian communities within the United States to celebrate. As part of the celebration, the Lithuania Post announced a competition to design a new postage stamp commemorating these heroes.

Banionis, who had been an avid stamp collector and amateur designer since childhood, was unaware of the contest at first, but many of his fellow stamp enthusiasts suggested that he enter and, after initially protesting, he agreed to give it a shot.

So after spending many hours hard at work over the design, Banionis sent out his entry; in a priority, insured envelope, complete with tracking. Unfortunately, that package was waylaid in California and the deadline was approaching.

Luckily, he'd also had the forethought to send a copy of the stamp design to his friend in Lithuania and that package arrived safe and sound but still close to the deadline; meanwhile, the other insured and priority package was eventually returned as undeliverable to Banionis. And so, unsure if his entry had even made it in, he waited.

"I looked it up online after the deadline had passed and almost fell out of my chair when I saw my stamp was in first place," the 21-year veteran said.

Fittingly, Banionis is the first Lithuanian-American to design the country's stamp, which depicts the history-making efforts of other Lithuanian-Americans. The Lithuania Post will run produce 80,000 stamps with his design and just 1000 of the First Day Covers, though more might be issued if there is demand.

On July 20, the stamp was officially issued in Kaunas, Lithuania. Banionis returned to Lithuania for the release and to partake in the festivities surrounding the anniversary, like the memorial ceremony at the tomb of the pilots and an air show where a replica of the pilot's airplane, the Lituanica, was flown.

"I'm sad that my father wasn't around to see this, he passed away about two years ago," Banionis said. "He was waiting at the airport for these pilots to arrive when he was an eight year-old boy, so he lived this history."

"I guess now I can say that I am officially a stamp designer."

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