Having recently returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq, Army Sgt. Christopher Stokes thought back on the times he has been thanked for his service by strangers in airports. “The biggest thing for me was feeling appreciated,” a humble Stokes said, referring to his travels home while on leave and in uniform.
The same was true for veterans of World War II and the Korean War. Upon returning home, many were feted with big parades, waving flags and children eager for heroes to look up to.
Sadly, things were different for thousands of returning Vietnam veterans. Many were jeered rather than cheered. Some were met with taunts and even violence. By now, amends have been made and Vietnam vets recognized, but the dichotomy suggests a question as America honors her war veterans on Nov. 11: How should we thank our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines for the sacrifices they’ve made for our nation?
The Register asked several Catholic veterans for suggestions.
Thank veterans by remembering what they did for us, says Jose Garcia, past national commander and current executive director of Catholic War Veterans of the U.S.A. (online at CWV.org). An Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, he recommends visiting veterans’ graves at local cemeteries (most are marked by an American flag).
“Put a flower on their graves,” says Garcia, who will visit the graveside of a Vietnam-veteran friend. “I sit there, and contemplate what he meant to us and did for us, and say a prayer at the same time.”
Put gratitude into word and deed, suggests retired Marine Col. Charles Gallina, who now serves the Knights of Columbus as assistant for military and veterans’ affairs. He also oversees the Knights’ “Serving Those Who Served” volunteer program in more than 130 hospitals.
“Provide rosaries, Bibles and Catholic reading material, like the Register or Columbia magazine,” says Gallina. “When you’re done reading, don’t just throw them away. Take them over to the hospitals. They’re always in need because chaplains aren’t allowed to purchase these items from VA funds.”
Also helpful: offering to become an extraordinary minister of holy Communion in a Veterans Administration hospital. Or bringing Catholic veterans to Mass on a Sunday.
Gary Thomas, a volunteer-services specialist with the Knights of Columbus in Connecticut, describes how some Knights assist hospital-bound veterans who can’t walk. “If we don’t go there,” he says, “they probably won’t get to Mass.”
Veteran Burt Francoeur, an 87-year-old amputee living at a VA hospital in West Haven, Conn., asked the Knights for help with a wheelchair van. He and other non-ambulatory vets hadn’t left the hospital for two years because the only handicap-accessible van couldn’t accommodate more than two.
Thomas got going with his Blessed Pope John XXIII Council at St. Jude Church in Monroe, Conn., and raised more than $90,000 for a bus that holds 18 wheelchairs. Knights’ councils, individuals and even a school thanked the veterans by pitching in with donations.
Thomas says “small-scale thank-yous” can be just as meaningful. One knight had schoolchildren write notes of appreciation to hospitalized veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lots of young servicemen come from Iraq and Afghanistan with terrible injuries from improvised explosive devices and other weapons of terrorism. “Don’t be afraid to get involved” with such young veterans, he says.
Even occasional gestures can lift veterans’ spirits. Gallina ticks off a few examples: visits to vets in nursing homes, invitations to a home-cooked meal at your home, a day at a ball game.
Father Peter Uhde, an Army captain, chaplain and Iraq veteran, concurs. He recalls a time an anonymous individual paid for his meal in a restaurant as a way of saying thank you to a man in uniform. “The mere fact I am a veteran and saying these things,” he explains, “means it has made a great difference to me.”
Father Uhde stresses that war veterans aren’t just enlisted personnel; nor are they just former servicemen and servicewomen.
A Catholic war veteran is also an active-duty soldier’s “mother, dad, brother, sister, his wife for sure, his kids beyond a doubt,” the chaplain points out. “The people back at the bases are also very much veterans.”
“When you see a young mom and know her husband is away fighting for freedom, thank her for what she’s giving up,” he continues. “Thank all the young women who stand by their man for the ‘worse’ side of the marriage vow. Thank them for upholding their ideals, having faith in God.”
Most of all, says Father Uhde, veterans — and currently serving members of the military — need the prayers of their fellow Americans.
Pray that they won’t give up on their ideals, on who they know they could be, or on the people around them, he says. He suggests sending rosaries to Catholic military chaplains for distribution on bases and battlefields.
Send some items for personal use to VA facilities, too. Father Uhde remembers how fast boxes of donated toiletries, books and DVDs emptied at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He’s also all for “care packages” — boxes of goodies and small but useful items.
In Lakeland, Fla., over the course of 22 months, Charlie and Mary Stokes organized collections and the boxing up of 850 care packages through the local Catholic War Veterans chapter, their parish of St. Joseph Church, and the Knights’ local Father Mendoza Assembly. Parishioners brought toiletries, DVDs, CDs and food like macaroni and cheese, canned tuna and peanuts. They sent half the packages to son Christopher’s unit and the rest to other units in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It was a loud and clear thanks. “That was the goal,” says Charlie. “They were giving so much and not having access to a lot of that stuff.”
That act of gratitude was significant to son Christopher and his fellow soldiers. They were on a tiny patrol base with 80 people, very poor facilities, and not the best food or situations.
“All the care packages — stuff a lot of people take for granted — really uplifted our spirits,” Christopher says. “The biggest thing was the appreciation factor. Getting things from home was a way of receiving thanks.”
It’s Veterans Day. Have you thanked a veteran or a veteran to be?
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.