Touching History: Why Scars Matter

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He that shall live this day, and see old age,

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

And say "To-morrow is Saint Crispian."

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,

And say "These wounds I had on Crispin's day."

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,

But he'll remember, with advantages,

What feats he did that day.”

William Shakespeare, “Henry V”


Last year I sat with a crusty, 93 year-old Marine from the Battle of Iwo Jima. I asked him frank questions about Iwo. He was Irish. He answered me back frankly. In more ways than one, the battle was still with him.

“I have some of the island still in me.” O’Malley told me in a thick Massachusetts accent. Extending one of his hands to me, aged, but massive and strong, he said, “See those two black spots? That’s sand from the beaches of Iwo Jima.” The Marine allowed me to touch the spots with my fingers. A doctor had once offered to remove them, he told me, but O’Malley had responded with a firm no! “I earned that!” For 73 years he had carried those pieces of black volcanic ash in his hand, a memory of the most defining days of his life. There was no way they would be removed now.

This wasn’t the first time a veteran has showed me his scars. Once, another Marine friend had taken my hand and put it to his temple. “Feel that,” he said. “That’s shrapnel from the jungles Nam.” 

And at a monthly breakfast group one morning, an Army vet stretched both his arms out over the table and pointed out to me the lines he had running up from his wrists to elbows, “June 6th, 1944, on Omaha Beach,” he said matter-of-factly. “I held my arms up to cover my face from the bullets. Good thing I did because otherwise my face wouldn’t look too pretty.”

“It never looked pretty,” kidded another D-Day survivor from across the table.


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As most kids are, I think, growing up I was fascinated by scars. My brothers [and sisters] always hoped our scratches from outdoor play would turn into scars, and when they didn’t, we solved that problem by drawing them in with permanent marker. Maybe not the best idea. But it sure looked good.

As adults, we each carry internal scars of battles we’ve fought. Some of them we are proud of, others we are content to keep hidden deep in our hearts.

But why do scars matter?

I think Shakespeare hits the nail on the head in Henry V.

“Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars / And say "These wounds I had on Crispin's day.””

There is nothing like an external scar to show the world that you fought hard and conquered. In the Japanese culture, there is a practice called, kintsugi: A piece of broken pottery is repaired with gold, not only renewing the life in it, but adding value by celebrating and showing pride in it’s “scars.”

I consider it a treasured privilege to be shown a veteran’s battle scars. Something very personal is transferred. And I become custodian to a moment from 75 years in the past.

When I took that crusty Marine’s hand and felt his scars, I could feel a battle that took place 51 years before I was even born. I was touching history.


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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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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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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