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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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

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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