Back to the Island

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When I went to Iwo Jima in 2015 with my dad, it fulfilled a dream I'd had since I was 8 years old. It completely changed my life, and I was pretty sure that my first time there would also be my last time.

But next Monday, I will be helping escort 6 veterans (including one of my dearest of friends) back to Iwo Jima, Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. I'm still waiting for reality to hit. But I am deeply grateful to the Best Defense Foundation for this opportunity to re-live those childhood dreams all over again and in the company of such heroes.

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Consequently, I have been studying like a madman in preparation. I feel like the word "excited" is an inadequate one to describe how I feel about returning to Iwo and making my first trip to Saipan and Tinian. The history of these islands is one that I feel so deeply connected to.

Iwo was my first introduction to WW2 when I was 6 or 7 years old. And some of the first stories of war I ever heard were from veterans of Saipan who described what it was like to watch the poor brainwashed natives take their own lives by jumping the cliffs rather than fall into the hands of what they had been told were "cannibal Americans."

Over breakfast one morning, a Marine (*see endnote) showed me a picture of the first Japanese he ever killed and the cave where he was wounded by a grenade. Another one showed me the volcanic ash that was still in his hands.

I have shared tears with hearty Marines who were making their first return to the battlefields; some of whom had left an arm, a leg, and hardest of all - their best friend.

But it wasn't just a rollercoaster of hardcore memories that makes my connection so deep. Along the way, I was a adopted by this special group of fighting men and given a second family. My Marine Corps family. All these extra uncles who declared I had to run any boyfriends by them for approval first, swore to protect me (in various forms of Marine Corps terminology), and were there to help me through some pretty rough times.

Mt. Suribachi (2015) with Sgt. John Coltrane

Mt. Suribachi (2015) with Sgt. John Coltrane

Going back to Iwo is pretty personal to me. More than the dress blues (which are gorgeous btw), more than the battle facts and statistics - because honestly, none of the adopted uncles are statistics to me - my Marines are living, breathing human beings who went through hell, but still managed to go on and live normal lives.

So what is the word I’m looking for to describe how I feel? Grateful? Heart-full? Thoughtful? Exuberant? I don't know. For now, just consider these words to be the placeholders until I do find the right one.

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** Note: The story of that Marine and the photo is not a story of the glorification of death… rather it is part of a beautiful story of forgiveness. When the Marine showed me the photo (one his buddy had taken), he was still angry with the Japanese. He had 70 years angst and bitterness built up that was coming to a climax. By showing me the photos, he was trying to share his story and find clarity in the mental conflict he was still fighting. He needed answers. All week I spoke to him about this, and others did as well… tskaAnd incredibly, the day we went to Iwo Jima, he was able to go up to a Japanese veteran and shake his hand. It was the first Japanese man he'd been willing to talk to since the war. The rest of the trip following that, he was happy and light-hearted. A month later, he passed away. I think he had finally found the deep peace and forgiveness he needed.

Say Something

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Not too long ago I wrote a letter to a friend. I told him how his friendship had helped me through some rough spots the last couple of years and how I would always be grateful. Forever. 💙At the time I thought it may be too much (we're both pretty awkward with sap) but I went ahead and mailed it anyways.

That letter ended up being my last opportunity to say thank you. He passed away a week ago from some complications following a hospital stay. Besides the massive loss I feel, I have no regrets. Though it's uncomfortable for me to express my personal feelings, I will never regret taking what ended up being a last chance to say what I had always wanted to say: Thanks for being there for me.

So here's my assignment for you... if someone has touched your life, tell them now. Don't wait. Acknowledge to them how they have changed your life. You will never regret taking the time to say thanks or tell someone you love them. The only words you will regret are the ones you didn’t take the time to say.


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Currahee!

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Last week the girls and I were up in Toccoa, Georgia, for Currahee Military Weekend. 

In my experience, Toccoa is one of America's most delightful hidden gems. It's one of the only places I can think of in our country where you can literally walk in the footsteps of the WWII Paratroopers and (for a brief time), re-live how it was during the war.

Local veteran, Dewitt Loudermilk holding a newspaper clipping about his service as an Engineer in WWII.

Local veteran, Dewitt Loudermilk holding a newspaper clipping about his service as an Engineer in WWII.

If you are up for it, you can run the mountain where our boys trained; visit the original barracks (currently being rebuilt), the depot where the fresh young men arrived, the museum with remarkable and historical artifacts; and talk to the wonderful folks who were kids at the time and grew up watching the paratroopers make their arrival, train, and depart for overseas... for some of them, never to return.

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The hospitality and genuineness of the people and the wonderful celebration they host each year remembering the paratroopers who trained at Camp Toccoa comes together to make it one of the happiest weekends of the year for me.

Faith and 101st Airborne Veteran, Vince Speranza.

Faith and 101st Airborne Veteran, Vince Speranza.

Thank you to all our Toccoa friends who work so hard to put on such a splendid event!


Recap in Photos

Lady MacRobert's Reply

Lady MacRobert and her three sons.

Lady MacRobert and her three sons.

Here is a story of fortitude for you!

Upon the death of her three sons who had served in the RAF, Lady Rachel MacRobert sponsored a Stirling Bomber to be built and named "MacRobert's Reply."

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"It is my wish, as a mother, to reply in a way my sons would applaud - attack with great fire power, head on and hard. The amount of £25,000 is to buy a bomber aircraft to continue my sons' work in the most effective way. This expresses my feelings on receiving notice about my sons … Let the bomber serve where there is the most need of her and may luck be with those who fly her. If I had 10 sons, I know they all would have done service for their country."

But the lady's mission did not finish there. She went on to sponsor Four Hawker Hurricanes, three named after each of her sons, and the fourth entitled: “MacRobert’s Salute to Russia – The Lady”

Lady MacRobert is a magnificent example of the indomitable spirit of the British people during World War Two.


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"The War That Was Almost Forgotten"

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In June, we were treated to a special surprise by Battle of the Bulge veteran, Buck Sloan. From his thick Texas accent down to his shiny black cowboy boots, Buck is the real deal. At 94, he can pluck the guitar and sing a tune that takes you back to the days of the old Westerns. 

Buck and his adorable wife serenaded our group with old classics such as Rag Mop (Ames Brothers), and a few that he had written himself.  


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D-Day Ohio 2018

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For the last 5 years, D-Day Ohio has been one of the most looked-forward-to events of the year. This year our annual trip to Conneaut, Ohio nearly didn't happen, but it was too important for us to miss!

Since 2014, we have built some beautiful friendships with the veterans who gather at this fabulous event each year. 5 years later, health and age has seriously shrunk the ranks of the veterans, and it is our last time seeing some of them. And so, though our time was short this year, the relationships we've made with our Ohio and Pennsylvania vets was without a doubt worth the trip!

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R E E N A C T M E N T | Yes, D-Day Ohio is a reenactment and nearly 2,000 people come in period garb for the war years. But dressing in the style of WWII is also a helpful way of connecting with veterans. The clothing is familiar to them- maybe the dress you wear reminds them of a sister or mother, or in Honor's case, the same uniform and rank as their Navy days.

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A  G R A T E F U L   N A T I O N  |  Four veterans received France's highest award, the French Legion of Honor. During the ceremony, a representative from France, Consul General of France Guillaume Lacroix, gave a heartfelt speech thanking the veterans for the sacrifices they made for his country. To be honest... sometimes the politicians who grant these awards tend to ramble on about a million different things. But this time, I was captivated by his sincerity and genuine. It was a beautiful ceremony.

To read more about the legion of Honor Ceremony, France in the United States
Consulate General of France in Chicago:


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A  S I L V E R  S T A R | One of the happy surprises of Conneaut was to see my friend, Major Turner, again! Back in June, I went with the Major and The Best Defense Foundation to Normandy for the 74th Anniversary. Over the course of the 10 day trip, I was incredibly impressed by Major Turner. At 99, he is independent, strong, and always carried himself like a complete gentleman. 

During World War Two, Major Turner served as an Engineer platoon leader with the 2nd Armored Division in Europe. Though he tells everyone he fought the war from a jeep and never fired a shot, it should be known that he received the Silver Star for meritorious actions during a particular engagement with the Germans when he (then a lieutenant I believe) and his men were clearing a roadblock under heavy from the enemy. The Silver Star is the third highest medal that can be awarded a United States serviceman.


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S U P E R  S E N I O R S | Richard C. is one of my favorite examples of a super senior. He is 87 and still rides his motorcycle from Ohio to Florida every fall. I'm sure his vibrant Italian personality has something to do with that.

He also carries photos with him from his time in Korea with the 8th Armored Division, 155 Self Propelled Gun [Tanker], because one time a lady told him he didn't look old enough. "And I most certainly was!" he declared.

I hope we can all enjoy our lives the way Richard does - to the max.


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I N   C O M E S  T H E  C A V A L R Y | Anyone who has met Al Klugiewicz knows what I mean when I say he is a gem. 102 years old and he still drives (he got his license renewed at 100), he can sing you countless old Polish songs, play the ukelele, and I can always count on him for solid boyfriend and marriage advice.

Something else special about Al... he is also one of the very last of the US Cavalry Corps. Yes, the horse cavalrymen. A few years ago he told us his job was to work the radios - on horseback. It wasn't too difficult once you got used to it. In 1938, after 4 years service, he was discharged, but he re-enlisted once again in February 1941. When war came around he fought with the 83rd Infantry Division all through Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace and Central Europe.

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Catching up with him on Saturday, Al showed me a photo from his recent unit reunion, cutting a rug out on the dance floor. A moment later when I pulled out my lipstick to reapply, he told me not to over do it. "Girls always put too much on," he said. "Would you like some?" I joked, offering it to him. "No," said Al. "I only wear Cavalry yellow."


If you've never been to D-Day Ohio, put it on your to-do list. You'll be so glad.


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The Bombs Bursting in Air: A short story for the 4th of July

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Sharing this story from a couple of years ago... a little something to get you in the mood for Independence day.


"Do you remember the lines in the National Anthem? About the 'rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air??

Lt. Col. Tom Kalus is one of those very rare Marines who happened to be a participant in two of the greatest moments in Marine Corps history: the Battle of Iwo Jima (WW2) and the Chosin Reservoir (Korea). Both events are known for their intensity of the fighting and the bravery of the Marines against unbelievable odds.

Shortly after I met Col. Kalus, he related a story to me which remains one of my favorite ones I can remember a veteran telling me... 


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One evening of the Marine reunion we both attended a few years ago, Col. Kalus asked me, "Do you remember the lines in the National Anthem? About the 'rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air?"

Of course! Who can forget those inspiring lines written by Francis Scott Key and sung so often at sports events and holidays.

"When I was on Iwo," he went on, "About the 3rd or 4th night, the Japs gave us a real hard shelling. One of the wisecracks in my foxhole said, 'Hey look, it's like in the song, the bombs bursting in air.' I didn't pay much attention to him at the time, until one night at Chosin. The 7th Marines were bravely taking a hill and the Chinese were giving them everything they'd got. The sky was filled with explosions and fireworks. I remembered what the Marine had said on Iwo, 'and the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air.' At that moment I realized that I was seeing what Francis Scott Key had seen when he wrote the Star Spangled Banner."

Oh goodness, if there was ever a story to put the chills on your arms. Mr. Kalus got teary-eyed as he finished by saying that he could never listen to the American Anthem again without thinking of those fearful nights at Iwo Jima and Chosin. I know I never will listen to it again the same.

O say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

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Visits with the Vets

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In a large way, personal visits with the vets are the heart and soul of Operation Meatball. When the girls and I first started OM as a project 4 years ago, we wanted to use it as a way to encourage, thank, and remind WWII veterans that we are still a grateful nation, that their service to our country has not been forgotten, that they have not become obsolete to society, and that their age only makes them more valuable to us.

We did this through music, dressing in the style of their sisters and wives back in the 1940s, recording their stories, letters, or just taking them out to a meal. 

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However, brief encounters at events quickly grew into friendships, and as the veterans aged, it became more important to visit them in their homes or places of retirement where they could share stories from the comfort of their favorite chair, pull out old photos from pre-war days, or maybe just listen to their favorite Big Band cd. 

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Sometimes it's a quick hello and dropping off some sweets, and other times it's a 3-hour reviewing of war-time scrapbooks. Whatever the case, these "fireside chats" are the most precious of memories.

Recently, I called one of my Iwo vets who I hadn't seen in a while due to travel on both sides. "Come on over," he said. "I'm just here."

I popped over with the complete intention of seeing if I could take him out for a bite to eat, but when I arrived, he was in his favorite recliner, watching an old western. After the usual greetings, he ordered me to, "Sit down and watch the western." Was I hungry? Did I like enchiladas? (I must add, these are his famously delicious enchiladas) Could he make me some?

"Don't you want to finish the movie?" I asked.

"Oh," he said in his West Texas accent, "I've seen this a bunch of times... I know the ending."

How could I refuse such an offer... Within a few minutes, we were eating enchiladas and watching an Audie Murphy western. "He's my hero," my friend said. When the movie was over, and half the settlers had been killed by the Indians and half the Indians had been killed by the settlers, he declared to me that this was his favorite love story.


There is no way to put a value on visiting World War II veterans in their homes, where they are most peaceful, surrounded by memories of a full life, and so desiring to share those memories with someone who really cares. 


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"I've never forgotten them - I never will." / Memorial Day 2018

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Each year people write extensively about the meaning behind Memorial Day. I've written a few posts in the past similarly... but this year I just want to share some brief moments from my first Memorial Day in DC. 

To be honest, I didn't plan on spending this solemn holiday in D.C., for no reason other than I had different plans. But before the day was half over, I wouldn't have traded a precious minute of it to be somewhere else.

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For instance, I listened to a 14 year old Korean-American publicly thank the men who liberated his grandparents back in 1951, and pledge over $800 of his personal savings to the memorial that was in tribute of these liberators. He dedicated a flag to his hero, a WWII/Korean War Paratrooper who had lost both an arm and a leg fighting for that boy's country. Such articulate honor from a young man was completely inspiring. By the end of his speech (entitled "This I Believe"), I'm sure I wasn't the only one trying to keep back the tears.


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At the Vietnam Wall, letters were left for passersby to read. Letters expressing all emotions. Heartbreak, anger, bitterness, forgiveness, love, and gratitude. One read, 

Hello,

I graduated from high school in 1970. My brother (Daniel) was drafted in 1967. When I dated some of the men who had just received their draft cards, they told me they would "probably" die in the war... I tried to comfort them and told them I was very proud of them. 

I know some were killed, because they didn't return. A few of them came to my house and asked me what they should do - because they were weighing whether or not to go. I could only tell them to do as their knowledge told them what they felt was the right thing to do. 

I've never visited The Wall in Washington, D.C., but I am traveling to that area this September, and I won't be afraid if I see some names I recognize. These men died for me and also for all the people in America. They did not die in vain.

I've never forgotten them - I never will.

Ms. Frank (Daniel's sister)


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Without getting too heady and philosophical, I truly believe there are seasons and holidays which act as a natural conduit for humans to interact with each other. Maybe we shouldn't need it, but they give us an excuse to talk to strangers and step out of our comfort zone without the usual "awkwardness."

On this day, something about the meaningful solemnity of it gave off a bit of this warmth and affability. Even an openness to share difficult stories with complete strangers. 

Throughout the afternoon, I found myself listening to heart-wrenching stories from veterans I'd only met minutes before, as they told me about war, of friends they'd lost, pointing to the names on the wall, or showing me their photographs.

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Notes from May 29:

I met 173rd Airborne veteran, Samuel, at the Vietnam Wall yesterday. He had been in D.C. with his reunion the last week and decided to stay an extra day to visit the wall for the very first time.

As all Texans eventually meet up (he was from Austin and I from San Antonio), we got to talking. I asked him about the name his son and he had just pointed out, Charles Watters.

He spoke softly and thoughtfully as he told me that in the few weeks before Thanksgiving, 1967, his unit had had a fierce fight with the VC. The casualties on both sides were enormous, and over 143 paratroopers were killed. He made it out himself, but he never forgot those couple of weeks.

In years afterwards, every Thanksgiving as his family gathered together, before the meal started, he would remind his sons, "We must always be grateful to the 143 boys who didn't make it back."

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A little while later, Samuel came up and showed me a picture. "This was my friend," he said, "I'm looking for his name down on that end. Everybody thought we looked just alike. He was a great guy. But he wasn't supposed to be killed. It wasn't supposed to happen." And he explained to me that one night in Vietnam, they'd heard noises coming from an area a little ways away. It was someone else's job to check it out, but his friend was too curious and had jumped up to see what it was. He was instantly hit.

"I tried to visit the Traveling Wall when it came to our area a couple of times..." he said. "But I just couldn't do it..."

Samuel is just one of many veterans I talked to at the Wall yesterday. Many of them with stories very similar to his.

Being with a veteran when he makes his first visit to the wall is very moving. It's a vulnerable time for them because all their barriers are suddenly taken away, and all they are left with are the raw feelings and emotions of the moment, of seeing so many thousands of names in stone, and among them their friend. But at the same time, it's beautiful to watch. To see the names remembered and the Veterans of this tragic war finding peace and healing.


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On a somewhat lighter note, it was a thrill and an honor to meet Mr. Kyung Kim, one of the brave ROK (Republic of Korea) Marines who served with our guys in Korea. And you know what, whether you're an ROK Marine or a United States Marine, a Marine is a Marine!

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Throughout the day, I kept running into these lovely fellows representing the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Angelo Wider (left) enlisted in the Army in 1964 and served with the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam. He was nearly fatally wounded in 1966, but the bullet missed his vital organs, saving his life. He left the service in 1967.

Felix Garcia (right) of Texas is a three-time Purple Heart recipient. He served with the 1st Marine Division, and was wounded at Al Karmah and Fallujah. He's the Junior Vice Commander at the Military Order of the Purple Heart Association.


Click on the below photos for a full description

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Memorial Day is always meaningful for me, even as I remember my great-great Uncle Israel Goldberg who died overseas in 1942. But this Memorial Day was especially so. The openness strangers and veterans felt sharing their personal stories with me left me greatly touched.

I also saw again and again that gratitude is a universal language. From a 14 year-old boy speaking to his hero, to the wrinkled hand of a visiting foreigner thanking one of our veterans. Gratitude is beautiful.

And finally, in the minds of many of the veterans who participated in the various wars and conflicts America has taken part in the last 70+ years, every day is Memorial Day. If that is the case, it's only appropriate to take at least one day out of 365 to remember the boys who are "forever young."


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Greater Peoria Honor Flight / May 8, 2018

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The month of May was truly Honor Flight month for Operation Meatball. Immediately following the Chino Air Show (which I talked about last post), OM began a whirl-wind trip to Peoria, Illinois.

Just a few weeks earlier, I had received a text from my dear friend (and Operation Meatball board member) Phyllis Piraino of Greater Peoria Honor Flight that they had a spot for me on their May 8th Flight. I was beyond ecstatic. As you all know, I LOVE working with Honor Flight, and there are few hubs I'd rather fly with than Greater Peoria. They were our very first Honor Flight nearly four years ago, and because of that, we share a special bond with them. 

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Notes from May 7:

 

Nearly 4 years ago we met our first Honor Flight at the WWII Memorial: Greater Peoria Honor Flight (GPHF). Today I got to see our very first Honor Flight vet, Bob L-, and tomorrow I fly out with GPHF for their V-E Day Honor Flight. Excited doesn't even begin to describe it. But it's a start. We have a bright and early start in the AM, so DC peeps: stay tuned for some pretty happy vets about to head your way!

 
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The night before a trip, GPHF hosts a Pre-Flight Dinner. This is a wonderful opportunity for the vets to get together, meet, break the ice, give any final information for the trip the next day, and enjoy a hearty meal!

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The details that go into this dinner are numerous. In fact, this is one of the things we first noticed about GPHF which sets it apart: their attention to detail and community effort. It isn't a millionaire who sends the vets to D.C., it is the hard work of the local community. During the last school year alone, students from grade schools in Peoria raised $106,480 to send their heroes, the veterans of the Greater Peoria area, to DC!! This is just incredible.

From the adorable goody bags decorated by local children, to the incredible pre-flight dinner, the veterans can't help but feel completely loved and honored for their service.


Flight Day!

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Mornings are early with Honor Flight, but the energy is always high enough to make up for it. First comes check-in, then photos, followed by the easiest trip through security that you'll ever experience. 

Popping around, asking the vets if they were ready for the day, I heard from one of our Korean War vets that he had already had the most wonderful time, and he didn't know how it could get better. "Wait a minute! You can't say that," I told him. "It's 4:30 am in the morning, and we haven't even left Peoria yet." But he insisted. His cup was almost filled up with the happiness he had experienced in the last 24 hours. "Just you wait..." was all I could tell him, and I had to leave him contentedly thinking it couldn't get better. 

Coffee and donuts provided by the Salvation Army, the National Anthem played by two darling little girls on the violin, and we are off!! 


Arrival in DC!

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Whenever an Honor Flight lands in D.C., the entire terminal is notified, and everything is put on hold to greet these heroes with handshakes, clapping, even a little music. Of course, the vets are not expecting this, and I'm pretty sure I saw a couple of moist eyes among the group.


National World War Two Memorial

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First Stop: The National World War Two Memorial for the May 8, V-E Day Program. This was extra special for our group as we had 7 World War Two veterans on this flight who were invited to participate in the ceremony. 

Photo credit: Greater Peoria Honor Flight

Needless to say, the memorials never get old ~ each visit is a new experience, a new memory. But visiting the WWII Memorial with WWII vets, and on such a significant anniversary as May 8, the end of World War Two... it's really hard to beat that.

Some of the WWII vets presented the wreaths for the VE Day ceremony.

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Sunny and warm, but a perfect day. And these two kept us smiling the entire day.

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I always love to see the veterans getting together and chatting... no longer strangers.

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Two of our WWII,s. 

Photo Credit: The fabulous Tami Stieger 

Photo Credit: The fabulous Tami Stieger 

Surprise visit from a few of my BWI Brownies!


The Vietnam Wall

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Each memorial holds a special significance to me... the Vietnam Wall is no exception. For the sake of time, I'll just share one story with you from this emotional memorial...

Notes from May 12 / A highlight from Greater Peoria Honor Flight's trip on Tuesday was visiting the Vietnam wall with our Nam vets. I was able to help Archie find a few of his friends' names (many of them childhood friends)... but the most touching moment came when he told me the story of an officer of his who's name is on the wall:

It was Friday the 13th. Archie and 12 other men were on a patrol in Vietnam. Communications were poor and before he knew it they were being fired on - by their own men. They had unknowingly run into a brother unit who took them for VC. In a matter of moments, every man in his 13-man patrol was wounded, and the officer (fresh out of OTS) was killed. It is one of the tragic accidents of war, and sadly there are too many stories similar to Archie's.

Each visit to the wall is uniquely special... but this is one I will remember for a long time. 


Air Force Memorial

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I ended up spending the entire time at the Air Force Memorial listening as this kind and gentle man, Mr. Avery, explained to me how meaningful this whole experience had been for him. At the end of the day, as we disembarked from the plane back in Peoria, his eyes were full of tears. No words needed to translate that.


Welcome Home

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Moving forward because it's impossible to capture every moment in one blogpost (those of you who suffered through our post[s] several years ago when the girls and I were guardians for two 95 year-old Air Force vets know what I'm talking about)... The Welcome-Home.

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I've never teared up at a Welcome-Home before. But I certainly did here (I'll just blame it on Mr. Avery for getting me started). I walked down the line taking photos of the countless people holding signs, cheering the veterans, hugging and kissing, thanking the veterans, the bagpipes, the families greeting their loved ones... I'm still getting chokey thinking about it.

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Honestly, this was the best Welcome-Home I've ever been to. I'm not good at estimated numbers, but I can say that the entire airport terminal was packed (and I mean PACKED) with people. 

The entire day was a magical one for our vets, and I'm afraid I've only been able to give you a few inadequate highlights. The work that goes into each flight is just enormous, and I can't say enough about the whole GPHF crew, who are really the heart and soul of this Honor Flight hub! And the biggest hug and thanks to Phyllis for including me! 

Finally, the number one word that comes to mind with Honor Flight is Healing. Whether it is tough memories that won't fade, or possibly hard feelings over long overdue recognition, these dear men, who served our country in good times and in bad, come home with a new feeling of respect, healing, and value. 


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My Tough Marine: Loving the harder to love

Photo Credit: Joe Schneider 2015

On my trip back to San Antonio, I detoured through Yuma, Arizona to see a couple more of my Raiders... unfortunately, one of them had just been recently hospitalized following a heart attack, but I was still able to spend a lovely afternoon visiting with my Vietnam 3rd Recon friend. Of all the Marine's I've met, my friend is one of the toughest of the tough. A 32-year career Marine, when his time ended in the Corps, he was devastated. The Corps was his life. So what did he do? He went to South Africa and exchanged his services as protection for a small village for bed and board. A true gentleman adventurer.

But my visit with this tough Marine left me with many thoughts. So after my visit, I wrote the piece below for the Operation Meatball Facebook:


Spending so much time with veterans from all walks of life I've learned that oftentimes the harder the external shell is, the more tender and soft is his heart. Sounds cliche, but it's true.

Today I spent the afternoon with a 32 year career Marine. His life was the Marine Corps. It was all he dreamed of as a boy, all he ever wanted to be. And when they retired him, it absolutely broke his heart.

Externally, he's one of the toughest and roughest men I've ever met. I know he probably terrifies a lot of people who may think of him as a mean old man. But when you start chipping away at the 32 years of Hardcore Marine, you find a man who loves little children and sticks to his friends the way only a Marine can.

Unfortunately, however, because of the stereotype society gives people like him, he's destined to live out his final years in relative obsoleteness; unknown and unappreciated for the life he dedicated to his country. People can't get past what they see on the outside and they don't realize that the crustiness, the hard shell, even the rough words, are just a cover for the suffering that person has experienced in their life.

It breaks my heart to see this, but it's a reminder of why we do what we do at Operation Meatball. We want to make sure people (and not just veterans, but this goes for all elderly as well) like my friend are not forgotten. That they DO NOT become obsolete. And that they know they are still treasured members of society.


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A Special Sort of Crusty

Hanging out in the airport with Mr. bordeaux (centre) and his lifelong friend, wayne pricer.

“I’m going to push your wheelchair through the museum for you, Mr. B.” I announced.

“No, no, no, honey.” He protested. “You don’t need to do that.” 

“I’m happy to!” I exclaimed.

“No really. I’ll just be fine here.” He settled himself for the wait.

My friend’s response was typical. He was independent and would be the last person in the world to put someone out. 

We were both a part of a large group of WWII veterans and guardians who had traveled from Fort Worth, Texas to New Orleans, Louisiana to visit the National WWII Museum. It was most of the vets' first time, and after a swell evening the night before being serenaded by the trio at BB's Stage Door Canteen, everyone was excited to tour the museum for the day. 

just a "few" of the ww2s on our trip!

Unfortunately, stepping off an elevator the day before, Mr. B. had collided with one of the other vets and didn’t quite feel up to a strenuous day of walking. True to form, he would rather have spoiled his trip than have to depend upon someone else. 

But I was prepared for this. 

I walked around to the front of his wheelchair, “Mr. Bordeaux, do you seriously think you came all the way from Texas to New Orleans just to sit in a chair in the front of the museum all day?? I think not!!”

He attempted one last pathetic protest and then realized it was pointless. “Oh, okay.” He smiled. He was won over. 


Everyone you meet has a different impact on you. And what you take away from one friendship may be completely different from the next person.

I didn’t know Mr. Bordeaux as long as some folks, but I like to think that over the several years of our friendship, I was able to see a different side of Mr. B. than the one he regularly presented.

For those who didn’t know him so well, one might have put Richard Bordeaux down as a possibly cute old man, always good for a laugh, with a somewhat impossible amount of orneriness left over from years of being on his own.

In a way, that is true. Each extended trip to the hospital proved he was too tough to be overcome. And it’s true, his self deprecating jokes could be really cute ...

“How are you doing, Mr. B.?” 
“Fine… They said I need a lobotomy, but I doubt they’ll be able to find anything there.”

… But I also saw a side to him that (along with his adorable crustiness) was interesting and even brilliant. I would like to share that with you here - the Mr. Bordeaux I knew.


Until he got too sick, we would talk regularly on the phone. Oh the miles of conversation we would cover. Sometimes we’d compare notes on our Civil War relatives. His insight into a war, so far in our past, but still so hotly disputed, was clear headed, honest, and intelligent. Over the election year, his political commentary, though far from PC (Mr. Bordeaux and "politically correct" were just two things that never went together), was again very insightful and oftentimes hilarious.

His retention of information and knowledge on many, many subjects continually impressed me. 

One day, I was talking on the phone with him. 

“Mr. Bordeaux!” I exclaimed. “I finally got to see the Grand Canyon!” 

“Just a minute honey,” he said in his raspy Texas drawl. “Let me turn the TV down.”

He had one of my favorite smiles!

I smiled and waited on the other end of the phone. He refused to wear hearing aids, despite having lost most of his hearing as a Navy Gunner during the war.

“Now what was that?” He said picking up the phone again. 

“I finally got to see the Grand Canyon!” 

“Oh now, that’s fine. That’s just wonderful, honey,” he replied, “Did you get to see…” And he listed off a couple of places. We kept chatting about it, and he told me about the history and geology of the canyon. His descriptions were breathtaking. 

“I should be taking notes for next time,” I laughed. "When was the last time you went??”

“I’ve never been,” he said. “I’ve just read about it.”

“Well, if you ever decide you need a job,” I told him, “you should apply as a tour guide of the Canyon!”

He chuckled a bit.

A few years ago, I had told him about my brother hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Had he heard of that before? Most certainly!! And he proceeded to tell me about this famous 2600 mile hiking trail. “How did you know about it?” I had to ask, amazed (I’d never heard of it before my brother announced to the family his intentions of making the hike). “Oh, reading somewhere,” was his reply.

The following year, I told him my brother was commercial fishing in Alaska. 

“Alaska!” He said, getting excited. “That’s one place I have wanted to visit my entire life.”

“Really?” I said. “Tell me about it. Why?” 

And he did. For the next ten or fifteen minutes, he went on to tell me about the gloriousness of “The Last Frontier.”

Again I asked in amazement, “Where did you learn all this? No! Don’t tell me…” I knew where this was going.

“I’ve read about it, watched a lot of documentaries… you know. Not much.”

“Goodness, Mr. Bordeaux!” I chuckled on the other end of the phone. Would there ever be a subject he didn’t know anything about?


Pushing my crusty sailor around the National WWII Museum that day, I saw yet another side to this interesting individual. 

“Where do you want to go?” I asked. 

“I don’t care. Wherever you want.” 

“Let’s go through the Normandy exhibit then. I know you were in the Pacific, so it might be interesting for you to see the other side.” 

I wheeled him through the many exhibits, chatting a bit, reading some of the displays, asking questions about the Navy crafts, and watching him in those moments where he was thoughtfully silent. 

explaining how the landing crafts work.

explaining how the landing crafts work.

We finally arrived at the Invasion of D-Day when he suddenly blurted out, “I lost my two best friends on D-Day.” I stopped. He had never talked about this before. 

Coming to the side of his chair, I knelt down, “Oh, I’m so sorry, Mr. Bordeaux. You were close with them?”

“One of them lived next door to me. The other one was a few miles away, but we were always together. When he died, his mother moved to the house next door. Her younger son had been killed by a street trolley, and it was just too much for her to lose another son. She never got over it.” 

As he reflected on these things, his eyes became moist, his raspy voice grew a little more raw. “I haven’t thought about them in over 30 years.” His voice trailed.

“Thank you for telling me.” I said taking his hand, trying not to tear up myself. This was one of those moments I knew I’d never forget.  

Last Memorial Day I was able to get him a photo of his two friends' graves. You can read more about it here

 - - - - 

But if I thought that was the last emotional moment of the day, I was wrong. 

During our tour of the Warbirds exhibit, we ran into an old friend of mine, Lt. Colonel Art Arceneaux, a Marine Air Corps Ace during the war.

The meeting of my two friends was another moment I will never forget. 

After the usual, “Where were you?” they realized they had both been in the same general area during the Battle of Okinawa. Except Col. Arceneaux was fighting the Kamikazes from the air, and Mr. Bordeaux was fighting them from the guns of his ship. 

"Remember how the Kamikazes swarmed at us like flies to honey?" said Mr. B. ”I admired you guys in the planes. I wouldn't have traded places.” 

“I felt sorry for you guys on the ships," responded the Colonel in his soft Cajun accent. ”I didn't want to be in your position." 

So handsome! He never lost the smile.

I stood there in awe listening to them swap battle stories. I knew Mr. Bordeaux had served in the Pacific and had experienced things he’d rather forget. But he didn’t talk about it much, even when I pushed him. Okinawa was his one big battle. Compared to other WW2 guys, his combat experience was limited. But who’s counting the battles? I’ve seen sometimes that the vets who were only in the rough for a short time didn’t have the chance to become battle hardened, and they are left raw with lasting memories that cannot be shaken for anything. 

A few hours earlier our group had watched the Museum’s 4D short documentary, “Beyond All Boundaries.” Despite being in good spirits before the show, when the kamikaze attacks came on the screen, Mr. B. couldn’t handle it. “Make it stop, make it stop.” He cried out. “Do you need me to take you out?” I asked. “No… No. I’m fine.” He said. But soon the sounds, the vibrations, and the visual imagery intensified. My hand was on the elbow of his chair. He grabbed it and held on. Tight. My eyes became a bit dewey.  

After the film, Mr. B. told me how he had watched a nearby ship go down in flames. The crew members jumped into the ocean on fire. There was nothing he could do but watch. 89-years old at that time, and that image haunted him still. 

Pulled back to the moment, I looked at Mr. Bordeaux and Mr. Arceneaux chatting away. These men had never crossed paths during the war, but yet they had fought side by side. 70+ years later, here they were swapping war stories. I was a merely a fly on the wall.

a special meeting between war veterans: dick bordeaux and Lt. colonel Art arceneaux.

Saying our goodbyes, both vets thanked the other for their protection during the battle. They would never meet again, but they would forever be friends.

I was grateful for this meeting with Colonel Arceneaux, for Mr. Bordeaux’s sake. There is something intangible to the looker-on, and so meaningful to the veteran that comes out of a conversation with someone “who was there.”


Over lunch in the American Sector Restaurant, we talked about the day and the museum. So much to take in and process. We talked about his family, goofy stories from the Navy, growing up, events that had hurt him as a child and ended up shaping his life.

In many ways, his story was similar to another friend of mine. Both of them had grown up in the school of extra hard knocks. Both their fathers had left home at an early age, and they were forced to raise themselves without that important figure in their life. “A boy needs his dad,” Mr. B. told me. “But I didn’t have mine.” 

lunch date at the museum!

The difference in my two friends came when one took the path of indifference to hardships and a perspective that life would not be allowed to run him down. Mr. B. did not choose that path. There were many things in his life he wanted to be or could have done… He knew that. But sometimes life just hit him too hard to get around it.

Having the two examples of my friends, such similar lives with such opposite outcomes, I was struck by the fact that here I had an opportunity to see into the future. Life throws an awful lotta curveballs at us, and how we respond to them may change the course of the rest of our life. Through the example of my other friend, I saw the blessings of what it would look like at 90+, having taken the high road of positivity at age 20. And for Mr. B., sadly, I saw the outcome of having taken the road of frustration and discouragement. It’s a hard lesson. 

But for all the somber moments of the day, Mr. Bordeaux still had his wonderful sense of humor. After we pushed the serious life matters out of the way, he was back to his old jokes and humor, including cracking a comment that made me hide my face behind the menu and caused the next table to look up in surprise. Yup, Mr. B. always had something tucked up his sleeve ready to pull out when you least expected. 

“Here, have my fries,” he said.

- - - -

When we landed back in Fort Worth, I looked to say goodbye to Mr. B. But he’d already gone. Calling him up the next day, I pretended to be mad, “Mr. Bordeaux, what did you mean by running off yesterday without a goodbye? After all I did pushing you around the WWII Museum!”

“Oh honey,” he said, “I’m sorry. I just hate goodbyes.”

I get that.


The story of our visit to the WWII Museum is just an excerpt from all the stories I have to tell from dear Mr. Bordeaux. An excerpt though it is, it nevertheless remains one of my favorite experiences with a WW2 veteran since starting Operation Meatball.

one of our impromptu visits after an event in fort worth. 

Yet, WW2 veteran though he was, my family’s friendship with him grew to be more than that. He became a regular fixture in our visits to Fort Worth and a treasured friend. Over the years, we accumulated many hilarious anecdotes from our time with him.

The first time Mother met Mr. Bordeaux, he asked her bluntly, “Why are you wearing BLUE toe polish?”

Sometimes I’d call him up and say, “I’m in town. Can I come over for a chat?” Forever worried that he would put us out, or embarrassed that his little flat wasn’t clean, he’d make some excuse. That is when I had to learn to say, “I’m in town. I’m coming over in 30 minutes.” Of course, he was happy about it, and we would talk for hours… “Come back soon.” He’d say. 

One afternoon, when he didn’t show up to a luncheon where he was a regular, I called him. “Where are you??”

"a quick hi and a hug"

“I’ve been waiting for the mechanic. My car has issues, and they were supposed to be here at 10am.”

“But it’s 2 o’clock!?” I said. 

“I know.”

“Can Faith and I come by and give you a quick hug?”

“Well now, honey, you don’t have to… But you can if you want.”

He was out by his car when Faith and I got there. Our “quick hi and hug” turned into a lengthy discussion on how to solve world problems (sailor style) and the best way to sleep during a Typhoon in the Pacific (educating!). Periodically, one of the folks living in his apartment complex would walk by with a trash bag for the dumpster, staring (not-so-politely) at the little party gathered around his old truck, chatting and laughing in the (Texas style) freezing weather.

Another time, it was his turn to remonstrate when I was out of town for a while and hadn’t called.

“I’ve been looking for you!” He said in his North Texas manner. “But I didn’t find you in any of the local pool halls or bars.”

I died laughing. “Goodness. Mr. Bordeaux. You must have been looking in the wrong pool halls then.” What else could I say?

jubilee and mr. bordeaux at the National wwii museum.

Surer than the sun setting, I could always count on Mr. B. to end his phone calls with, “Now you be safe, honey. And stay off the streets.” 

This last part always baffled me. “Why would I be on the streets??”

"Now, now, you just never know. Be safe now.” He would always answer.

“Well, all right then. I’ll try.” I would tell him.

ice-cream, okinawa, and architecture 

Another time, we were out for ice cream and ended up discussing Frank Lloyd Wright and Architecture (a passion of his) until the ice cream ran out. That was after someone had come up to thank him for his service, only to not be heard (remember, he was too independent to wear hearing aids). The fellow was a little awkward not knowing what to do… “It’s okay.” We told him, “He can’t hear you, try again.” We tugged Mr. Bordeaux’s sleeve, “Someone’s trying to talk to you.” I still don’t know if he ever heard what the guy was saying…

20170630_103217.jpg

On birthdays, I’d always call him a day or two after. Why? Because of this conversation: 

“Hey, Mr. Bordeaux! Your birthday is coming up soon!”

“I don’t believe in birthdays. Anyways, life goes downhill after 21.”

“But I’ll be 21 in a couple of years!”

“Well, then… you know.”

“I’m going to send you a card on your birthday.”

“Now, now, now… don’t go doing that.”

“And I’m going to call you.”

“Now, now… Listen here, young lady, I told you I don’t believe in birthdays or holidays. They aren’t for me.”

Two days after his birthday: “Mr. Bordeaux! Happy birthday. You said not to call you on your birthday… and I’m not!”

- - - -

I wasn’t able to say “goodbye” to Mr. B. before he passed. I wondered if I would. But I never got the chance. However, thinking back to that conversation on the phone when he told me, “Oh honey, I’m sorry. I just hate goodbyes,” it’s probably okay. He hated goodbyes… and really, I do too. Anyway, he’ll always be my sailor who was a special sort of crusty.


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Survival, Loyalty, and Faith: The Story of Ben Skardon

Photo Credit: Ken Scar

In early February of 1945, the war in Europe was wrapping up. By May, the Germans had surrendered, and there was "a hot time in the town of Berlin when the Yanks [went] marching in.” The jubilation of the freed countries of Europe was unbounded.  

But for Ben Skardon and the remaining veterans of Bataan, it looked hopeless. After surviving a brutal march, cattle cars of death, multiple Japanese prisoner camps, disease, and starvation, by early December 1944, Ben Skardon and 1600 other POWs had been crammed into the hold of the Japanese passenger/cargo ship, Oryoku Maru.

Sitting for days… Each man sitting between the legs of the man behind him. Thus began a 47 day nightmare of horrendous inhumanity and barbarisms. The lack of air and water. The confined space. The constriction of movement produced near panic.
— Ben Skardon

En route to Japan, the Oryoku Maru was attacked by US Navy planes from the USS Hornet. Unmarked and unidentifiable as a POW ship, the Navy planes had no idea they were bombing their own men. The ship was sunk and 270 POWs were killed. Loaded onto another cargo ship, the Enoura Maru, Skardon and his fellow POWs were again hit by friendly fire in the harbour of Takao, Formosa, killing another several hundred men.

Among those killed was Otis Morgan, a man to whom Skardon owed his life. Morgan and another man named Henry Leitner had worked tirelessly to keep Skardon alive when he lay sick and dying of starvation and disease. Trading what few valuables they had left (including Skardon’s Clemson Ring), they managed to bribe the guards for the necessary items to keep their friend from death’s door.

Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan (PC CBS News)

When Skardon succumbed to the tortuous sufferings brought on by Beriberi (a vitamin deficiency disease which causes nerve inflammation and heart failure), Morgan and Leitner spent hours around the clock wiping his eyes and rubbing his feet to help reduce the pain. During a time when it was “every man for himself” to survive, the three men had stuck together to keep each other alive.

But even their close friendship could not prevent Morgan from becoming one of the hundreds of casualties of the Hell Ships. When the ship docked on January 30th, of the 1,619 POWs brought aboard in the Philippines, hardly 500 had survived the barbaric 47 day crossing.

“Survival, Loyalty, and Faith,” Ben Skardon told an auditorium of people gathered to hear him speak 76 years later. "Survival: To maintain life, to endure. Loyalty: To family, to friends, to country. Faith: In the fellow man and the Almighty God." Those were the keys to his existence during the unthinkable experiences he had endured as a prisoner of the Japanese.

PHoto credit: CBS news

Despite all odds, Ben Skardon (now a retired Army Colonel) had survived. He had survived one of the greatest tragedies in American history. But why had he survived when so many others had died?

In his speech two weeks ago at White Sands Missile Range, he explained how he never gave up. Once a man had given up the hope and fire inside of him to survive, Skardon explained, it was very rare that that man would live to see another sunrise.

To live without Hope is to Cease to live.

~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The loyalty of his friends and to his country had also kept him alive. Morgan and Leitner never got to see their homeland again, but because of the sacrifices they made for their friend, their names will never be forgotten - not by Ben Skardon.


On March 18, 2018, for the 11th time, 100 year old (“100 and 7/10," he corrects me) Ben Skardon made his annual pilgrimage to White Sands Missile Range for the Bataan Memorial Death March. After a weekend meeting the marchers, encouraging them for the difficult task they were about to undertake, and sharing personal experiences from Bataan, Col. Skardon set out on his own Bataan Memorial March.

He doesn’t have to. After all, he is over 100 years old… but he feels obligated. An obligation that is 76 years old. Leitner and Morgan did not have to exert themselves to save Skardon’s life, but they did. And now, Col. Skardon feels it is a small thing to march in their honor.

Proud to March with ben's brigade and wear a my great-uncle's photo

In past years, Col. Skardon has marched 8.5 miles of the rugged desert terrain. Nearly 7 of those miles are dubiously sandy, uneven, and difficult for the average person, much less a senior. But Col. Skardon has been defying the term “senior” for years, continually proving the mettle which helped him to survive his years of imprisonment.

This year, as the members of Ben’s Brigade gathered for the annual pre-march dinner, I asked a few of them if the Colonel would be going the whole 8.5 miles. “It’s hard to know… but we’re hoping for 3 miles” was the general response.

“I’m going to go as far as I can,” the Colonel told me.

The next morning, the marchers, the veterans, and Ben’s Brigade gathered for the opening ceremonies. It was an electric atmosphere. The Bataan Memorial Death March is no easy marathon, and every one of the participants either knew that or figured it out pretty quick. Having completed the whole 26.2 miles last year, I can tell you the feeling among the marchers is just enough excitement to get them up in the morning, but just enough nerves to question the sensibility of the venture they are about to embark upon.

Members of Ben's Brigade, including Col. Skardon's nephew, Sgt. Hooper Skardon

But all those nerves disappear when, moments before they cross the start line, the marchers are greeted by Bataan Death March survivors, ready to shake their hands and wish them well before heading into the New Mexico desert. It is an utterly inspiring sight. Over and over again my throat choked and I teared up as I watched the marchers, wounded warriors, ROTC, active military, veterans, and civilians pause to shake the hands of the very men who were the reason for this memorial march.

wounded warriors shake the hands of bataan survivors moments before they head out to the grueling New mexico desert

“Good job. We’ll see you in 26 miles!” The veterans would say, and off the marchers would go.

When the last man crossed the start-line, Ben’s Brigade formed up.

“Oosh,” said Colonel Skardon, a command his Japanese guards would holler out for the prisoners to “keep moving.”

At mile 1, we halted. “If you want to cheat,” said the Colonel in his refined southern accent, “You can’t. We’ve got the record right here.” The Colonel says that if you take a photo with each mile marker, it's proof that you didn't cheat.

By mile 2, we began to hit the sand.

Mile 3, the sand was beginning to get rough. The Colonel made his mile stop and announced, “We’ll wait here 30 seconds. One, two, three, four, five, Oosh!” We continued.

Col. Skardon at mile 5

Never a complaint, occasionally throwing out a piece of humorous advice, or offering a witty comment, Colonel Skardon pressed on.

“The voices spoke,” he said, as he rested a hand on the mile 4 marker, “but I have prevailed. I’m gonna try one more mile… before I take the night.” He added with a twinkle, “You know what that means? If you get into that damn automobile, you get bayoneted…. but me, I’m the commander. You’ll be in front of me.” His announcement complete, with a chuckle and a mischievous grin, he ordered the well-known command, “Oosh!”

After completing 5 miles, Colonel Skardon took a seat in the car that followed behind us over the sandy desert terrain. He left us with this parting, “I have some urgent business to take care of, but I’ll join you at 7.”

Before too long we were re-joined by the Colonel, and by the time we reached the finish-line, he had completed nearly 7 miles. I can’t quite tell you what an incredible feeling it was to watch 100.5 year old Bataan Death March survivor (or should I say “year-young” after the feat he completed) cross his personal finish line. Inspiring? Oh 100%.

During the march, I had contemplated the life of this man, listened to stories from his family and friends, and watched him put one foot in front of the other, unfaltering in spirit.

Colonel beverly skardon crosses his personal finish line at the bataan memorial death march

Despite age, memories, a full life, this man who had marched the same trail and endured the same horrors of Bataan which took my great uncle's life had just completed another yearly pilgrimage, “as a tribute and honor to my Clemson friends,” Otis Morgan and Henry Leitner. “Two and a half years in the prison camp and we became like brothers." For his brothers he marched.

A true testimony to his character and the 3 rules he had given us the day before, “Survival, Loyalty, and Faith.”

For someone like Colonel Skardon, “inspiring” just begins to describe him. But marching with him was inspiring. To me, to the members of Ben’s Brigade, and to every single one of the marchers who shook his hand.

Moments after  Colonel Skardon led the group past the finish line, Ben’s Brigade broke out into the Clemson Cadence:

1-2-3-4
C-L-E-M-S-O-N
T-I-G-E-Rrrrrr-S!
Fight Tigers, Fight Tigers, Fight, Fight, Fight!

A most appropriate ending for this memorable day.


For Our Vietnam Veterans

Today is Vietnam Veterans Day, so we are re-sharing an article from a couple of years ago about a few particular Nam vets who left quite an impact on us, and taught us it's never to late to say Thank You.

A slight diversion from our normal topic... this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. Putting aside complicated politics and issues that came out of the war, when our fellas came home they were treated like trash. Many of the vets we've talked to thought that they were going off to fight Communism and save the world, just like their predecessors the WWII veterans.

Coming home, then, only to be welcomed by being spit on, having things thrown at them, and called "Baby Killers," & "Murderers," was very demoralizing and crushed the spirits of many. One vet in particular, Mr. Adam, told us that he was treated so poorly after returning, that he retreated to the confines of his military career; rarely leaving the base, and almost never communicating with people outside his Army life. In the early 2000s, when there was a boost to show proper appreciation for the troops overseas, he felt very bitter. 

Last year when we went as guardians on Austin Honor Flight, we had the pleasure of traveling with many Vietnam Veterans. Before the trip was halfway done most of them were in tears at the gratitude they were being shown -for the first time. After all these years it didn't seem possible for them, but it was! At the end of the trip, we asked one of the vets, Mr. D'Amore what those two days had meant to him. He said two words, "Healing and closure." After all these years, there was finally healing and closure.

In our group was a set of friends (including two pairs of brothers) who were all born and raised in the little town of Granger. They did everything together, even went off to war together. Serving their time overseas, they eventually all came home -together. We like to think of them as the "Granger Boys".

Last year they decided to sign up for an Honor Flight. Gathering at one of the houses, they filled out the applications and mailed them in one envelope to Austin Honor Flight. If they were going to do this, they wanted to do it together. And they did.

Throughout the whole Honor Flight they were practically inseparable. Shedding tears of relief and joy, remembering their comrades, and receiving the welcome they never had. "There was no fanfare," they told us, "We just stood around. This is our welcome home. It's like having a baby, we feel that good about it... when you're baby's born you have tears. And you have tears when you go through that airport." All their lives they had done everything together, and now they had finally received their welcome home -together. Welcome home Granger Boys.

Don't forget these men, the Veterans of Vietnam. They fought in a messy, messy war; many of them coming home with great scars. It's an easy thing to say thank you. As Mr. Mike said, "Just a handshake is worth ten times a medal!"

How to Connect with WWII Veterans in YOUR Area

We've had a lot of folks ask over the years what we have found to be the best ways to connect with local WWII veterans. When we first started Operation Meatball in 2014, this was one of the biggest hurdles we had to overcome. The few WWII vets we knew were several States away, so for all practical purposes we had to start from scratch. In fact, for the first WWII Dinner we put on, we really had to comb the newspapers and local care homes for vets. The good news is, once we started to figure it out, it turned into a fire hydrant.

Below I have outlined a few tips which we have found helpful, and I hope you will too.


Honor Flight

10393995_302737693252235_1873239653344097987_n.jpg
Honor Flight Network is a non-profit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices. We transport our heroes to Washington, D.C. to visit and reflect at their memorials. Top priority is given to the senior veterans – World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill.
— https://www.honorflight.org/

There are several way to volunteer. 

  1.  Sign up to be a Guardian on an Honor Flight. This is trickier because most of the hubs only have 1 or 2 scheduled flights per year and already have a long guardian waiting list (unless of course you are related to the veteran, or he has requested you). Also, though the trip is 100% free for the veteran, guardians are requested to make a $500 donation to cover their flight, hotel room, and food during the trip (note: the cost varies according to the location. West coast guardian fees are around $900-1000). That said, If  you were able to be a guardian for a WW2 or Korean War vet on an HF, it would be one of the best experiences you will ever have in your life. Truly. As much as the trip impacts the veteran, I can tell you first hand that it will change your life as well. CLICK HERE TO FIND YOU LOCAL HUB
  2. Volunteering Locally with Honor Flight. You may not be able to go on an HF, but there are PLENTY of activities and events locally which your HF hub will host during the year. Fundraising events, HF Welcome Homes (a great opportunity to make a super flashy red, white, and blue, patriotic welcome home sign), letter collections, and anything else they do. This is a great opportunity to meet your local WW2, Korea, and Vietnam veterans, as well as work with some terrific people with a similar passion.
  3. Mail Call. Each HF that goes to DC has a surprise for the vets (If you are a WW2 or Korean War vet who hasn't gone on HF, - don't read the next sentence. Hehe). In the weeks before the flight, they collect special letters of gratitude from the veteran's family members, friends, and anyone who wishes to send in. Then on the return trip home, they have "Mail Call" just like in their service days. This is one of the most emotional and meaningful parts of the trip for the vets. If you can't make it to any of the HF programs, I highly recommend that you send in letters to your local hub for Mail Call. They are ALWAYS in need of more letters. They can be simple cards which just say Thank you Veteran, or you can be creative and decorate it fancy. Just make sure to check the specific requirements for your hub. 

Visit Your Local Nursing Homes & Assisted Living

Many of your local Care Homes will have a sprinkling of these American National Treasures. If you can sing, play an instrument, or have something similar to offer, contact the activity director for your local care home. The residents and veterans are always happy to have folks come in and entertain them. I know most of y'all already do this over the holidays... but there are still plenty of other opportunities to stop by and visit throughout the year. Think about bringing cards over on Valentine's Day, Memorial Day, the 4th of July, or Veterans Day. Or just because. 

Though there will be less and less WW2 vets as the years roll on, there are plenty of Korean War and even a few Vietnam vets living in these homes. And they would all be happy for a visit!!


Local Events/ Everyday Life

National holiday events like Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Veterans Day, etc always bring the veterans out. There are numerous other smaller holidays as well, but those of course are the largest. Keep an eye out for what events are happening in your area. Is your local VFW or American Legion having an open house? Maybe your local history museum/holocaust museum/ or something similar is having a guest speaker. These are all easy things that give you the opportunity to meet your local veterans. 

Of course, the grocery store is another awesome place, so keep an eye out for the WWII Vet/Korean War vet caps (for my WW2 readers... PLEASE remember to wear your hats out in public! Thank you). I'll tell you this, once you start noticing caps, you'll start seeing them everywhere. Funny story... about every 2 years I run into the same veteran at Costco. Each time we're both dashing somewhere crazy, but I end up reintroducing myself only to realize we've met before. 


World War Two Events

Going to WWII events is a great way to get your feet wet and get inspired. There are SO many WWII events all over the country throughout the year, that I can only name a few here. But hopefully it'll give you a good idea what to look for.

  1. D-Day Conneaut is the largest reenactment of the Normandy Invasion. But it's more than a reenactment. Set on the shores of Lake Erie, OH, you get to spend 3 days visiting authentic American, Allied, German, and Free French camps, with educational displays and living quarters for the over 1,200 reenactors who attend. It is like stepping back in time. Additionally (and our favorite part of course) is the veterans tent. WWII Veterans have talks throughout the weekend and you get the opportunity to visit with them in a casual and comfortable setting. Generally the 3rd weekend in August. Click Here to Learn More
  2. Reading World War Two Weekend is one of the largest WW2 events/airshows in the country. Set in Reading, Pennsylvania, they have reenactors from all parts of the war (The European Theatre, the Pacific Theatre), veteran talks, singing, a hangar dance, and a great selection of WWII planes. The dates are generally the first weekend in June. Click Here to learn more
  3. Currahee Military Weekend, one of my favorite events of the year. This tight-knit community gathers each October to honor the paratroopers who trained at Camp Toccoa during WW2. Making it extra special are the "Original Toccoa Men" who make the trip out each year. Secretly, I think it's just to make sure peeps like us keep running the Currahee mountain (3 Miles Up. 3 Miles Down). Click Here to Learn More
  4. Remembering WWII is another great event for the family. Around the end of September, the entire town of Linden, Tennessee transforms into the 1940s. Over the weekend they have a movie night, a reenactment, veteran talks, and much more. Click Here to Learn More
  5. Airshows: There are dozens of airshows throughout the year. Depending which ones you are closest to, they might have a special Heroes and Legends Tent or Veterans Tent, or something similar which is specifically set up for the public to meet and talk with veterans. 

There are of course many, many WWII events and airshows throughout the year, but these are the top ones that come to mind. If you are looking for one more local, of course you can look on Facebook and Google. 


I may do a part two down the road, but I hope some of the information helps. If you have questions, feel free to ask, and I'll try to get back to you promptly.

If you are new to the WWII community, don't be overwhelmed. Yes, there is a lot to learn, baby steps will get you there just as fast. Also, the good news is, once you start spotting veteran caps and keeping an eye out for local events, the opportunities will really open up. But don't wait. Don't wait until you have a paper to write for school, or even Veterans Day... Start now. Start looking for ways to recognize and thank your local veterans before the time runs out and the opportunity is no longer there. 

Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will tell to you.
— Deuteronomy 32.7

Happy Changes for Operation Meatball

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Dear Friends, 

We are thrilled to announce a significant change with Operation Meatball. 

In order to further our outreach to the veterans and advance our work to meet the urgent need, we have expanded Operation Meatball and formed a 501(c)3 non-profit organization as of December 7, 2017.

The last three years

In June of 2014, Jubilee, Faith, and I created Operation Meatball as our effort to honor WWII veterans. Over the last three and a half years, we have hosted USO style events for our local veterans, made house visits to those unable to travel and kept up a weekly correspondence with out of staters, recorded 3 cds of 1940’s music to give to the vets, worked with Honor Flight hubs around the country, and greeted thousands of veterans at the WWII Memorial. We attended dozens of military reunions and WWII events from California to Washington, D.C., meeting and interviewing veterans. In sum, we have traveled 250,000 miles, collected thousands of stories, and met countless wonderful veterans of WWII. 

Our mission remains the same: to honor World War II veterans while we have them with us. 

The plan for 2018

With funding, we will be able to broaden the work we have been doing over the last several years so that we can quickly reach the rapidly dwindling number of WWII veterans, and capture this fast fading moment in history for our children and yours. The plans so far for 2018 include 18 military reunions and WWII events, interviews with veterans in North Carolina, Iowa, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, 2 Super Saturdays at the WWII Memorial, 2 USO style concerts, and continuing our house visits and correspondence.

Now we need your help

We lost 33 veterans alone in 2017, with whom we had a special connection. The urgency is heightened as we hear of sickness, hospice care, and loss even in these first few weeks of the new year. Just a few days ago, I read the incredible obituary of a precious veteran I have known for two and a half years and saw regularly, but simply never had the resources to record his story in an interview. He was not one of the “famous” ones who has a household name, but his story was inspiring and even movie worthy. I admit I cried bitterly at the loss. All we have now is a newspaper summary. 

Would you support us? Your tax-deductible contribution to Operation Meatball will allow us to chronicle irreplaceable stories, to toast these worthy ones in their twilight days, and to ensure that their scars and feats will always be remembered. 

Warm Regards,

Liberty Phillips

President & Founder of Operation Meatball 

The Flying Horsemen Come to San Antonio

The remarkable men of the 449th Bomb Group Reunion. Nearly all of the men pictured flew between 42 and 51 bombing missions during the war, several of them surviving crashes, and a few becoming POWs on the Eastern front. Brave men indeed.

The remarkable men of the 449th Bomb Group Reunion. Nearly all of the men pictured flew between 42 and 51 bombing missions during the war, several of them surviving crashes, and a few becoming POWs on the Eastern front. Brave men indeed.

In October, San Antonio was invaded by the extraordinary Flyboys and family members of the 449th Bomb Group Association, the Flying Horsemen. And what a terrific invasion it was! By the very kind invitation of the association, Faith and I spent 3 memorable evenings with them, getting a first-hand, crash course history lesson on the Flying Horsemen.

Between January 8, 1944 and April 26, 1945, the 449th Bomb Group flew over 250 combat missions out of their base in Italy. Their losses were great as their targets were often the most heavily defended ones in Europe. "From the time they arrived in Grottaglie until they departed at the end of the war, the 449th lost a total of 135 aircraft. Of those, 111 were lost in combat and 24 were non-combat related losses." (449th Bomb Group Association). But their indomitable spirit persisted, making them "one of the most distinguished and decorated combat units of World War II."

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But this indomitable spirit went further than combat missions. Several of the veterans in attendance were ex-POWs. One in particular, a native Texan, Harvey Gann, was captured on January 30, 1944 and sent to Stalag Luft 4 near Grosstychow, Prussia. During his 15 months imprisonment, he attempted escape three times and finally on the fourth attempt, he was successful. However, by the time he arrived safely behind Russian lines, the war was within days of ending. "And to think I could have just waited," he laughingly told me. 

Each night there was something special planned for the reunion. The first night was a fun, "Get Acquainted Party." Folks dressed up in the smart styles of the WWII era, there was group singing and a special anniversary cake for Mr. & Mrs. Harvey Gann, who were celebrating 71 years that day.

A little snippet from Squadron Night at the 449th Bomb Group Reunion last evening. Lt. Ed West (B-24 Navigator) & Faith sing, "I left my heart at the Stage Door Canteen."

The next evening was Squadron Night, a personal favorite for me. This evening was all about celebrating the four squadrons of the 449th Bomb Group: 716th Squadron, 717th Squadron, 718th Squadron, and 719th Squadron. The veterans and family members sat at tables which represented their Squadron, and just like Texans, whenever an opportunity came up to applaud or cheer on the squadron, it was duly taken.

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During the evening, there was a terrific panel where each veteran was given an opportunity to share some anecdotes from the war or (in one delightful instance) sing a few wartime songs. This was followed by a fascinating lecture on the Willow Run Factory, a B-24 Bomber manufacturer owned by Ford Motor Company and based out of Michigan during the war. At the peak of her operations in WWII, Willow Run was producing 1 B-24 Liberator per hour! I can honestly say I never thought I would be so interested in a factory, but the history of Willow Run and her current restoration projects blew my mind. 

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Saturday night, the final banquet was held at the Tower of the Americas, a memorable location to close out the reunion.

As an outsider and onlooker, I have to say how much I loved seeing the enthusiasm and personal pride that was had for each Squadron and the 449th Bomb Group. This wasn't just an annual social get-together. It was a genuine and concerted effort to honor the men of the 449th BG and educate the younger generations on their sacrifices in WWII. Everyone I talked with at the reunion was so knowledgable about the 449th and spoke with such ardor about their relatives that I kept walking away from these conversations greatly moved and motivated to learn more. 

The amount of planning and coordination that went into the entire reunion was outstanding. I really must thank the organizers, specifically Denise Reigal, for including us in this special, special reunion. It was such an honor to meet your veterans, listen to their narratives, and even share a few songs with them.

Though the weekend was short, our hearts were quite captured by the Flyboys and family of the 449th Bomb Group.

Related Reading: Remembering a Statistic: The Crew of the B-24, "The Lady in the Dark"

If you are interested in learning more about the 449th Bomb Group Association, I highly recommend you check out their website. It is full of easily accessible information and content which will keep you reading for hours. I have greatly enjoyed pursuing the articles and documents they have on the website. https://449th.com

A Promise Made

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We see them here and there. At the park, a concert or even the local grocery store; living a normal life, just one of the crowd. The only thing that distinguishes them maybe is a black baseball cap with the words: World War Two Veteran in gold embroidery. We see them but it means no more than if it said ‘Red Sox” or “I love New York”. Occasionally, if it does strike a cord and get past that thick barrier in our minds, we might think, “oh, I should go and thank them, but I don’t have the time. Maybe next time.” The problem is, there is no ‘next’ time. Why?  they are dying out. Every day. 

I am seventeen years old this year, and for fifteen of those years I have spent a meaningful part of my life meeting these men and studying their histories. For the last thirteen years my family has taken part in an earnest effort to remember these forgotten heroes and honor them when so many of today’s generation has absolutely no desire to remember or thank those who bled and died for hundreds of thousands, even millions of men and women they would never know. Once a year on Memorial Day, we pause to remember, maybe. If we aren’t thinking about the finale of the latest sports event and our favorite team winning. We mumble something about how they gave their all for us that we might be free but we don’t even know what we are saying. These forgotten heroes did give their all. They had arms and legs blown off. Jaws shot away. Allowed themselves to be blown to pieces by land-mines so that the fellows behind them would have a safer path, and many of the veterans still alive today carry with them dozens of pieces of shrapnel in them left over from war wounds, all because they believed in what they fought for and understood it to be a just and right cause. Yet each time we ignore them we miss an once and a lifetime opportunity that we will never have again.

Three years ago my father took a group of people back to Normandy for the 67th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion of 1944. It was an incredible experience for all of us, especially as we were able to be with the men at the very spot were they fought and watched their buddies die. While we were there we met a few veterans in particular whom we have became especially close with over the last three years. We correspond regularly with and speak to them on the phone. They often send us lengthy letters filled with stories, poetry they have written over the years, and details about their life. We also talk about life in general, about our families, and about our faith.

At one point, one of the men dearest to us began to be discouraged and perhaps a bit lonely. He sounded like he wanted to give up on life. My dad wrote him and said basically this -- We have a deal for you --- stay alive until the 70th, read your Bible, seek the Lord and God willing my children will be there to stand by your side for the 70th. He accepted.

As the 70th anniversary of D Day came closer we began to wonder if we could keep the promise to these men. There were just no resources. So we talked as children and came to Mom and dad with a new plan. What if we prayed much, and worked hard as the children to save up the money to cover 100%?  Dad and Mom agreed on the condition that if the Lord did not provide this way, we would be content to accept that as a "no." But God did bless the effort in many unexpected ways, and when all was said and done, Operation Meatball was a go.

Leading up to the event, we practiced dozens of songs to sing for the veterans, made vintage-looking clothing to honor them, and worked on the many little details necessary to make the most out of Operation Meatball. Now we are just very excited and thankful and hope that God will give us many opportunities to bring encouragement to the World War II friends we know, and the new ones we hope to meet. 

Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations: ask thy father, and he will shew thee; thy elders, and they will tell thee. -Deut. 32.7
Operation Meatball 

Operation Meatball 

June 6, 2011: On Juno Beach with English D-Day Veteran, Bob Douglas

June 6, 2011: On Juno Beach with English D-Day Veteran, Bob Douglas

Visiting English D-Day Veteran, Mr. Womack.

Visiting English D-Day Veteran, Mr. Womack.

Visiting English D-Day Veteran, Mr. Scott.

Visiting English D-Day Veteran, Mr. Scott.