Vets to DC: It’s been a great ride

One of the area’s most successful organizations has voted to redirect its efforts. Its original mission has been accomplished.

The Shelby County Vets to DC program has announced that it will not make another bus trip to the nation’s capital. Instead, it has helped to launch a similar program in Logan County and it will look for ways to support veterans here at home.

Founded in 2009 by Jody and Ray Prater and led by Michael Bennett for seven years, the organization made 11 three-day excursions to Washington so Shelby County veterans could come face to face with the memorials there that commemorate their service.

Two trips were made in each of 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. One trip each year was taken in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Every time, the vets were treated to travel, hotel, meals and a day on the Washington mall at no cost to themselves. Caregivers and companions who accompanied the vets paid a minimal amount to cover their costs. A small army of volunteers also paid their own way and did the work of the project: setting up meals, compiling appreciation packets, handling luggage, leading games and sing-alongs on the buses.

In the beginning, the trips were available only to veterans of the World War II era. Later, veterans of the Korean War were included. The final three groups also embraced Vietnam War veterans. In all, 406 former servicemen and women, 315 companions and 283 volunteers experienced the emotions that come when patriots see our nation’s capital for the first time.

The Sidney Daily News has been honored to be among them. On every trip after the first one, Shelby County Vets to DC generously and graciously permitted a Daily News reporter to travel with the group.

We are proud of our community which has so generously funded Shelby County Vets to DC. Because of the little boy who emptied his piggy bank and the school kids who had car washes, businesses who supported their employees and retirees who wanted to go and volunteers who collected donations at grocery stores, money has never been a problem for this organization. Vets themselves, made sure of that. Hundreds of them made contributions, including some who came back from the trip and donated so another vet could go on the next one.

Our articles shared the vets’ stories — of their service, their feelings and their humility.

We know firsthand that there’s not a dry eye aboard when, through a bus window, are seen hundreds of Copeland Corp. employees, more hundreds of area school children, and many, many individual citizens crowding the streets of Sidney to pay tribute to the folks on the bus as they leave town. If there were a dry eye, it would tear up soon enough at the sight of hundreds of American flags, erected by volunteers in the early hours of the morning, lining the way to the interstate.

It doesn’t take long for strangers to become fast friends during those 12-hour motor coach trips. In part, that’s because the skillful volunteers initiate dialogue through those games and sing-alongs. There’s nothing like laughing together at a really bad joke to build camaraderie and the Vets to DC volunteers have told some of the best bad jokes we’ve ever heard.

As fun as the journeys were, it was being in Washington with people who had put their lives on the line to keep it strong that, year after year, was the most rewarding for us. How thrilled we were when our very own Shelby County vets got to shake hands with former Sen. Bob Dole at the World War II monument. How happy it made us to see teens from foreign countries flock to them at the Korean War memorial for photo ops. How privileged we felt to be there when our guys lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in front of visitors from around the world. And how moving it was to see Vietnam vets reverently touch lost buddies’ names, now etched forever into the shiny blackness of that famous wall.

They are moments none of us will every forget.

Thank you, Shelby County Vets to DC, for honoring our local heroes by giving them such special memories. We’re grateful that you let us share the journey.