Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series about the Shelby County Vets to D.C. Committee and its volunteers.
SIDNEY — It was a mission undertaken be every resident in Shelby County — to send America’s heroes to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials built in their honor.
Under the leadership of the Shelby County Vets to D.C. Committee, that mission was accomplished 11 times. And with each trip, a family was created and expanded with each successful mission.
For the 406 veterans from Shelby County and surrounding counties, their family now includes everyone — fellow veterans, caregivers and volunteers — who helped make the Shelby County Vets to D.C. trips possible This has created one large family of 1,004 people.
Like many families, the Shelby County Vets to D.C. committee is changing. The organization voted recently to stop making trips to Washington, D.C., because their pool of veterans wanting to see the memorials built in their honor has been exhausted. The final trip was completed in September 2015.
“I thought we might be done by the eighth trip,” said Mike Bennett, committee co-chair. “When we decided to include Vietnam veterans and Vietnam era veterans, that opened us up for a few more trips.”
World War II veterans were the first to make the trip. After all the WWII veterans who were able to go had done so, the trip was opened up to Korean War veterans. The final few trips included Vietnam War veterans.
The trips, said Bennett, a retired U.S. Army colonel, have been rewarding for the members of the committee.
“It’s been very rewarding just being with those guys and getting to know them,” said Bennett. “The fun part of the trips have been being able to walk with them on the Mall and just to talk with them. I loved to see their reaction when people would walk up to them and shake their hands.”
Those strangers thanked each of the veterans for their service to the United States during a time when the country was at war.
The success of the program, he said, starts with the volunteers and goes up the line to the bus company who transported the group safely to and from Sidney.
“We would stop every two hours on the trip,” said Bennett. “We kept things moving on the buses.”
Activities on the buses included games and mail call. Students from the county’s schools and family members wrote letters to the veterans.
“We always had a great send off by the community,” Bennett said. “We couldn’t ask for a better send off.”
The two buses and chase vehicle were escorted out the Shelby County Fairgrounds by hundreds of motorcycles on their Friday departure day.
Saturday, he said, was spent at the memorials, giving each veteran as much time as they needed to look at each one.
The committee isn’t disbanding, instead they plan to take a different role in the county in their quest to help veterans.
“We’re moving on from the trips,” said Bennett. “We have five areas that we want to become involved with in the veteran community. There’s a number of things that we’re exploring.
“We have a diverse group and now we’ll be serving the veterans in a shorter time frame from just one event to several things a year. Planning the trips to D.C. was a fulltime job for everybody.”
The biggest event being planned, said Bennett, will be a reunion of all the veterans, caregivers and volunteers who made the trip. The event is being planned for approximately the same time as the September trips were held.
“We’ll set aside a window of the day so people can come and go as they want,” said Bennett. “There will be entertainment, door prizes and a buffet.
“We’ll be sending out cards to everyone who has gone on the trips,” he said. “Some people have passed and others have moved. We’ll also have a future story in the SDN when the event is going to be held.”
Bennett said “day trips” are also being planned for county veterans.
“We have sign up sheets at the VFW and American Legion, both in Sidney,” said Bennett. “We’ve one a one-day trip to Wright Patterson Air Force Museum.”
A recent trip had 10 people visiting the museum. Some of them went to the Imax Theater while others looked around at the displays.
“In June they’ll have a new hanger open that will have the presidential planes in,” said Bennett. “We going to go on another trip to Wright Pat because some of the veterans wanted to see the outdoor displays.”
A trip in February will see the veterans traveling to Motts Military Museum, which is located near Rickenbacker Air Force Base.
“They have displays from the Revolutionary War until today,” said Bennett.
In March they will travel to the Museum of the American Soldier which is near Fort Recovery, just over the Indiana border.
“They don’t have heat in the building, so we have to wait for spring for this trip,” said Bennett.
All of the trips are within 1 to 1 1/2 hours from Sidney, he said.
“All they have to do is sign up is they want to go,” he said. “This is one way for them to get out of the house and it doesn’t cost them anything.”
Bennett said four or five volunteers usually goes on the day trips.
“We still have wheelchairs if they need them,” said Bennett.
Other programs the committee is hoping to become involved with include Wreaths Across America, Talk 2 a Vet and Visit a Vet. Each of these, said Bennett, is in the planning stage.
Bennett said a Logan County Vets to D.C. committee has been formed by Scott and Lisa Stewart. Their first trip will be in May.
“It’s good to finally get them going,” said Bennett. “Some of their volunteers went on our last trip to see how things operate. Scott and Lisa are doing a great job getting things done in Logan County.”
The Stewarts were volunteers for the Shelby County group.
“Several of our committee members will be going on that first trip,” said Bennett. “They’ve gotten good sponsorship in Logan County. We (Shelby County Vets to D.C.) also made a donation to help get them started.”
Bennett said the local trips couldn’t have been made without community support.
“Michael Jannides at The Spot restaurant has supported us on every trip by providing the lunch on Friday on the way to D.C.,” said Bennett. “Greg and Lori Billing prepared barbecue chicken for the last two or three trips for our sendoff dinner at the VFW.
“The VFW helped us in so many ways,” said Bennett. “They helped us sent up the accounts we needed. They provide us with a home place for the meals. They were very supportive of the committee and our trips.
“I’d like to thank the community for their support over the years,” said Bennett.
Ray and Jody Prater, said Bennett. were the two who started the project. Ray Prater had gone on a trip with Miami County veterans and decided it should be done in Shelby County.
“Ray gave me the devil when I said we were going to take two buses,” said Bennett. “He asked how we were going to pay for it, and I told him not to worry. Then I said we were taking a chase vehicle to pull the trailer too. I told him we can do this.”
And they did. From one charter bus and a church bus for the first two trips, the trip grew to two charter buses and a chase vehicle, all the ensure the veterans could visit their memorials.
All the group photographs taken in Washington, D.C., along with the CDs and picture books from each trip will be donated to the Shelby County Historical Society.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4822; follow her on Twitter @MelSpeicherSDN. Follow the SDN on Facebook, www.facebook.com/SidneyDailyNews.