Showing appreciation to our vets and our current military personnel has kind of become my thing. It's the cause that's closest to my heart. It may not have the tangible results like delivering a pet to his new family or handing a bag of food to a family in need, but it's the one I feel most compelled to continue.
So today I simply again say the words we cannot express enough - THANK YOU! And I'm going to give you some visuals on why it's so important to me.
Back in the 2004-2005 school year, the first year my kids attended Oak Glen School, I approached the principal, Mr. Miller, and asked if I could start an "Adopt-a-Soldier" project there and collect items and letters from the kids to send care packages to deployed troops and keep in touch with them during the school year. I'm happy to say that the program still continues to this day. One of the first packages I sent out was to this guy, Ryan Hensley. He happened to have attended that grade school and on leave from his tour in Iraq, he showed up in his dress uniform to visit with the students in his old classroom. There's obvious well-deserved respect that we show for our older veterans, but I can't tell you how much I look up to these younger guys like Ryan!
Another one of those first adoptees was John Aylmer. He enlisted in the Marines at the same time as Ryan and the two were long-time buddies. (And that's his darling girlfriend, Brittany, beside him.) John was also kind enough to come to the school when he was home on leave to visit the students. That time on leave goes so quickly and I was so appreciative of them giving some of that precious time to visit the kids. I also have this connection to John because I learned that he was the great-nephew of Art Aylmer, who was my next door neighbor growing up. Art was one of the sweetest men you could ever meet and he was a proud World War II veteran, who had a sturdy flagpole in front of his house and flew the American flag faithfully.
Last month, there was a program called Pillars of Honor at our local high school, which is a program and exhibit of a model of the World War II memorial in Washington D.C. It was a fantastic program that was attended by several local World War II veterans. I was seated behind this one. I adore this photo I took. I didn't get his name.
Then, last night I was at a celebration for the 237th birthday of the USMC and who do you think I saw? This time I got his name - Richard Yavenue. He was injured while serving in the Pacific at just age 18. His wife pulled a picture out of her purse to show me what he looked like then.
At the Pillars of Honor was another World War II veteran that I'd never met. His name was Rudy Hartge. He showed up at our next Lansing Historical Society meeting and asked for me. He showed me a picture from 1946 of a group of men in military uniforms. He said it was all the young men from Trinity Lutheran Church after they returned from the war. Rudy and his two brothers were pictured.
After that I asked my editor at the newspaper I write for if I could interview some WWII vets for a Veterans Day story. She agreed and I set up a meeting with Rudy. When I met him at the historical society, I told him I'd love to come visit him and hear more about his wartime experiences. My 13-year-old was with me. Rudy told him to come along when I made my visit.
So, last week I went out to meet Rudy - and my son happened to be off school that day. He brought along a WWII helmet he bought last summer at a military museum in Zion, IL. Rudy looked at it and relayed a story about how he and some of his fellow soldiers were in Italy and running around in just the helmet liners. He had me pick up each one to feel how much lighter the liner was so I understood why they didn't want to wear the heavy helmet all day long. He said that General Patton showed up for an inspection and threatened to knock his commanding officer "down to buck ass private" if the bunch didn't shape up. What a story. I'm so glad my son was able to meet him and hear about Rudy's experiences, even though some were gruesome and heartbreaking. When we were done, Rudy tried on the helmet.
The following day I went out to meet Ralph Boardman, a World War II vet in town who had served in the Pacific. A piece of shrapnel shot from a Japanese soldier on a mountain top left him blind in one eye. I had the honor of holding this case and its contents - his Purple Heart.
Here he is wearing his dog tags.
And here's that Purple Heart. I love this shot.
I left Ralph's house and went to Hammond to visit Andrew Orich, who served in the Caribbean in the Air Force during World War II. Although he wasn't involved in combat, he became gravely ill from malaria and dengue fever. He was an airplane mechanic and you should have seen the way his face lit up as he talked about the plane engines he worked on.
This is Laurie. Her husband was a Marine. And now her son is. We can't forget to thank the spouses and children behind our veterans!
Over the summer, a lady named Julie got in touch with me to thank my son. Back when he was 11 (he's now 18), he started a project called "Samples for Soldiers" and the library became a drop off point for toiletry items that we'd ship off to troops. While Julie's son, Ryan, was deployed, the gals at the library gave some of the items collected so that they could be sent in care packages. The collection took place at J.J. Kelley's, a local restaurant and bar, with wonderful owners, Jo-Ellyn and Vince, who are very supportive of our military. When Ryan came back home later in the year, there was a welcome home celebration for him. So many in town came out to greet him. And I went out to meet him and take lots of pictures. This one speaks volumes, I think.
And that's Ryan, thanking everyone for showing up to welcome him back.
Sometimes we'd send off "Samples for Soldiers" packages and we'd get e-mails or notes or postcards, which we cherish. We got a couple pictures of entire units. One person sent us Iraqi dollar bills and coins. We never expect a thing in return and acknowledging that a package was received is always a blessing that just makes it even more worthwhile. Sometimes the correspondence lasts for a while, like with my friend, Celia.
She responded with a letter after getting a "Samples for Soldiers" package. The e-mails continued from there and I learned she was also a big Cubs fan and that she had a young son back home in the Chicago area. When she returned from Afghanistan, I asked my sister, who has season tickets to the Cubs, if she could spare a set for me to give to Celia, who said she'd never been to a Cubs game. My sister, who didn't hesitate to say yes, gave me a set. I contacted Celia to let her know I had a couple tickets for her. She asked if I'd be going, too, so that we could meet. I went back and asked my sis for second set and she obliged. So, last year, my middle son and I went to meet Celia and her son to take them to their first Cubs game. And this year, we went to another game together, courtesy of my awesome sister. Last time, we both brought our sons. This time we both brought our dads (and it was her dad's first Cubs game.) I can't tell you what a thrill it was and what an honor it was to be able to spend that time with her and her family!
In October, our town has a big festival with a day dedicated to our military. Here's another of our local World War II vets, Robert Stech.
And here's my next door neighbor, Chuck, a Vietnam Veteran, and his wife, Fran. They were newly married when Chuck went off to war. She's been by his side for 50 years! They celebrate their anniversary next month!
Part of that festival included the Pillars of Honor. Leading off the ceremony were the Lansing Veterans Memorial Ceremonial Honor Guard. They present colors at so many events in the community. I adore these guys!
And these were some of the guests of honor.
LCPL Philip Martini enlisted along with Ryan and John, the two guys at the top of this post. Sadly, he lost his life while serving in Iraq. A plaque at Winterhoff Park sits in front of a tree planted in his honor. I organized the planting and ceremony with members of a club I'm in, the Lansing Junior Woman's Club. It's where I first met his mother and brothers.
My big brother, Mark, was in the Air Force National Guard when I was a teenager. It was a peaceful time for the most part, but he had little girls at the time and I remember how sad I was when had to go for weekend duty or when he went out of the country. One trip was to Honduras where I think he was helping to build a school. He came back telling us about how poor the kids were and how he and the other soldiers would hand out pencils to them and you'd think you just handed them $1,000 dollars. He made the choice to get out of the military in the early 1990's. I was planning my wedding in early 1991 when we entered the Gulf War. I remember where I was when I heard we'd gone into Iraq and the war had begun - sitting in my car at the emissions testing station. I was so worried my brother would be sent over there and I wondered if we'd have one less person in our wedding party later that Spring. That's my 13-year-old in the picture below. My brother recently gave him some of the items he wore when he was in the Air Force, including this camouflage coat with his name patched on it. My son wears it pretty much every day.
Here's my father-in-law, a native of Germany whose first years were spent in that war torn country. He immigrated to the U.S. in his teens in the late 1950's, leaving his entire family and coming here alone, and served in the U.S. Army.
I mentioned that wonderful club I'm a part of called the Lansing Junior Woman's Club. A few years ago I came to the members with an idea to do a little appreciation luncheon for some local veterans in the basement of the church where we hold our meetings. It grew to be a full complimentary dinner for veterans and a guest with music, speakers and prizes that has now continued for several years. Each year it grows larger and I'm so happy to see how special this event is to many of the veterans who attend.
It was kind of like pulling teeth to get this guy there. That's my dad. He was in the Army in the early 1960's - between the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He tells me he doesn't consider himself a "veteran" because he didn't serve in a war. He's still a hero to me. By the way, his dad served in the Army at the end of World War I and his brother-in-law, my Uncle Roland, served in World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge.
That Veteran Appreciation Dinner has been held at the Edward Schultz American Legion post. I've made it a habit of visiting a local cemetery with the boys on Memorial Day. We took this picture last Memorial Day. Edward Schultz was the first person in town to die as a result of military duty.
This year I'm the vice president of the historical society and one of my responsibilities is to plan programming. I thought it would be fitting to dedicate all the programming this year to World War II and we've had quite a nice response to the programs we've had so far. One meeting was a World War II memory night. People not only shared memories, but also scrapbooks and war memorabilia. I heard some very fascinating stories.
So, honoring veterans is something that has kind of been weaved into my life. I thank God for them every day. I am thankful that many of them share their stories with me and that I can call many of them friends. My gratitude grows with each story I hear. Some just break my heart. Remember John's great-uncle, Art Aylmer, who I mentioned above? He died several years ago, but his wife is still alive and well and when I see her she always talks about Art. About how he rarely talked about the war, but would jolt from bed with nightmares. One thing I remember her telling me that I can't even think about without my eyes swelling with tears is that his daughter was born while he was overseas. He didn't meet her until she was about 18-months old. It took a long time for her to warm up to the father she'd never met. There are so many more stories like that. So much that has been sacrificed. So much that is never the same when these boys join the military and return as men. They deserve our gratitude much more than just one day a year.