Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series about the Shelby County Vets to D.C. and its volunteers.
SIDNEY — There’s a hundred stories to be shared from the 11 trips the Shelby County Vets to D.C. volunteers have made to Washington, D.C. Some volunteers made one trip and helped make the other trips possible. Some made numerous trips with the veterans and their caregivers.
“When we first started planning for the trip, funding was a top priority for us,” said Ray Prater, who helped organize the Shelby County Vets to DC committee. “They had done trips in Springfield, Miami County and Dayton had honor flight. Springfield and Dayton had lots of corporate sponsors. Miami County had foundations who helped them.
“For us, we decided the way it had to be done was from person to person,” he said. “Everyone in the county became involved with raising money to send our veterans to D.C.”
The schools, he said, held various fundraisers and wrote letters to the veterans which were delivered during mail call on all the trips.
“The Spot provided us a lunch on Fridays on the way to D.C.,” Prater said. “The VFW totally got behind us. Everything was from our community and that’s what made this committee work and be successful.”
Each individual in the county, said Prater, made the trip with the veterans as they visited the memorials built in their honor.
“Without the citizens of Shelby County, we could never have made all the trips we did. I thank each citizen from the bottom of my heart,” said Prater.
“The neatest experience I had was on the last trip,” said Mike Bennett, committee co-chairman. “There was a Vietnam veteran who never talked about it. He decided to take the trip and had a great time.
“When he got home, he had the Vietnam Service Medal tatooed on his arm,” he said.
Memories of the 11 trips remain strong with the volunteers who traveled to D.C.
“One of my fondest memories is the special friendship Howard Acker and I developed during his trip – we had more fun and he quickly captured a special place in my heart that remains to this day,” said Rhonda Wade, who along with her husband, Rich, are volunteers for the committee.
“Rich especially enjoyed taking his father Don “Catfish” Wade on the trip — it gave them both a special time together, and for Don the trip to our Capital that wouldn’t have normally happened without the Vets to DC program,” she said.
Another memory that’s shared by several of the volunteers is the trip where a woman from France was visiting the memorials with her grandson and granddaughter-in-law. She wanted to meet a World War II veteran to thank him for saving her country.
“So many special things happened on these trips,” said Jim Hall. “There was the French woman who met one of our WWII guys as he exited the bus. Her English was very poor, but she knew the only English that really counted.”Thank You.” Seems as though she was a young girl in Paris when the American’s arrived. If not for them she would have never survived the Nazi occupation.
“At the Korean War Memorial one day the South Korean Ambassador and his delegates took the time to shake the hands of every Korean veteran in our group,” he said. “At the Vietnam Wall a vet ask me to find a name on the wall. After a search we found the name, and sadly learned that he was killed in action on the very day we visited the wall. Another man that I helped in the name search on the wall explained to me that he was standing next to him when he died. There were so many stories, so much sadness, but on the happy side there was laughter, there was bonding and there was friendships that will weather the ravages of time. Every volunteer I am sure feels as I do. It was just a great honor to have been a part of this group. Also you (Melanie Speicher), Patti (Speelman) and the Sidney Daily News need to be thanked over and over for all you did. The people in Shelby and surrounding counties need to be commended for their tremendous support.”
Hall said he was sorry to see the trips end.
“For all of us there is a great deal of sorrow for this to end,” said Hall. “Our mission was to continue until all of the vets had an opportunity to take this trip. Our mission is now complete because we apparently have served all of those who wanted to go. First of all, the volunteers that assisted us in this endeavor were and are some of the finest people I have ever met. We were fortunate to have been led by Col. Mike Bennett who’s outstanding leadership kept this group on task and dedicated to serving the veterans we all honor and respect. Every veteran that went with us was special in ways that were unique to each individual. We always said that we started our trips not really knowing each other. When we returned we were family. With that there is an obligation to always be there for each other and we always will be.”
For Duane Mullen, the chance to go to D.C. with the veterans gave him a chance to “have his parade” for serving in the Vietnam War.
“Returning from Vietnam in March 1968, I did not expect nor think about a parade. Early in the morning, at Cox Municipal Airport, I hugged my mother and father, rode to Sidney, and tried to sleep in the nearly complete lack of background noise on Ruth Street. In the years since, I have never thought much about that mythical, missing parade so often mentioned in the stories about returning Vietnam vets,” said Mullen.
“Fast forward to 2012. My friend Mark Deam suggested that I might be interested in participating as a member of the Shelby County Vets to DC Committee. I was somewhat aware of this group, having written a few “Mail Call” letters for WW II vets that had been feted with trips to see their Memorials in Washington, D.C. The Committee had decided to open up their program to Vietnam Vets! Since I previously had been to see ‘The Wall,’ I didn’t qualify to go as a vet, but I could go as a volunteer … I could go with the first group of Vietnam vets … to help with coordination, mobility, and information. I was in.
“Magic, I finally got my Parade! In fact, I have been fortunate enough to be part of four trips to Washington, D.C., with vets from WWII, Korea and Vietnam. I have seen broad smiles and eyes glisten with tears. I have heard stories, private and public, of vets’ experiences while serving our country in times of conflict in faraway lands. I’ve shook hands and hugged friends, new and old, as they/we marveled at the impressive monuments and memorials scattered around our nation’s capital. My Parades, not so formal but none-the-less dramatic, have been populated by local veterans and vets from across the U.S. and around the world. We have strolled leisurely on hallowed ground, paid for by the service of our brothers and sisters, marching in a parade back to the earliest days of our Republic. We’ve had speeches from local dignitaries. We’ve been accompanied by hundreds of motorcycle riders. We’ve been cheered by local students, factory workers, and businesses. We have seen the honors paid to veterans that did not return home and to those of us that did. We have seen more than dark stone and soaring steel, more than the grave markers of Arlington National Cemetery. We have seen America and the world pay tribute to our veterans.
“You, too, can be part of this Parade. Visit the memorials, whether in Washington, National Parks, or a local cemetery. Stand quietly with bowed head and breath the air of freedom. Thank a vet,” said Mullen, who is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4822; follow her on Twitter @MelSpeicherSDN. Follow the SDN on Facebook, www.facebook.com/SidneyDailyNews.