Every year on Nov. 11, Americans celebrate Veterans Day to thank those who have served in the United States Armed Forces. As World War II veterans continue to age, it's important to remember their stories and honor them for all they have done to preserve our freedom. Our generation must appreciate the valiant efforts of those who have served.
Almost five and a half years ago, I started Wish of a Lifetime (WOL), a non-profit organization with the goal of helping to change the lives of seniors in a meaningful way by helping them fulfill their dreams. Through our partnership with Brookdale, the nation's largest provider of senior living solutions and our lead national sponsor, we have extended our mission of enriching the lives of seniors by granting lifelong wishes to Brookdale residents and others across the country. Many of the seniors we grant wishes to are veterans.
One veteran's wish continues to impact others. In May 2012, WOL and Brookdale sent Bill and Peg Harper to Normandy with their great grandson Liam to reconnect with the memory of soldiers he lost during the invasion and to demonstrate to Liam the significance of what it means to be a true hero. Bill retraced his steps on the beaches of Normandy and spoke of his fellow serviceman John Brown Weaver, who saved his life and died on the beach shortly after. The story was carried in several news outlets and was seen by John's grandnephew, Ryan. It was not until this moment that John's family learned the details of his final days. They've since made contact with Bill Harper, who shared details about the war that they never knew. The wish we granted not only enriched the lives of the Harpers, but also allowed another veteran's family to gain closure. This shows how impactful our mission can be.
Recently, WOL and Brookdale granted a wish to Earl Paph -- a World War II veteran who served in the Navy as a Seabee from 1942-1946. Seabees were responsible for building bases, bulldozing, paving roads and other construction projects on the battlefront. While serving in Guam, Earl towed landing crafts up the beach once they landed, working quickly and efficiently while under heavy fire. Earl won a Bronze Star for his actions in Guam and was invited back to Guam when they celebrated the 50th Anniversary of their liberation. He retired as an E5 Petty Officer Second Class.
Earl traveled to Washington, D.C. with three other veterans and his grandson Mike, who joined the Navy in 1999 to follow in his grandfather's footsteps. Mike kept a journal detailing their experience on the trip.
"When I met the veterans in D.C., I was filled with an incredible feeling being around so many vets who served before me. Hearing and relating to their stories was such an honor," said Mike. "To see the look on my grandfather's face as he finally made it to D.C. as a veteran was priceless. I had tears in my eyes on the flight back."
While in D.C., the veterans toured the different monuments and landmarks.
"Although the vets usually wouldn't shed a tear, when they were at the memorial everything started coming back to them. My grandpa was sharing stories I never heard because it sparked so many memories," said Mike.
The highlight of the trip for Earl's grandson was the expression on the veterans' faces when they received recognition from strangers: "My grandpa didn't understand why everyone was so appreciative -- people were coming up to the veterans shaking their hands, and school kids were taking photos with them," said Mike.
"My grandpa told me I didn't need to take the trip with him, and I said, 'Grandpa I idolize you and the men in our family who served in the military and fought for our country.' He came from the Depression and war-torn generation and I stand proud to admit that I followed in his footsteps, not just militarily but in life in general," said Mike. "He is a man full of knowledge, huge arms to hug everyone and an unbreakable heart to love you with. He is not just my grandpa...he is my hero."
This trip illustrates the importance of bridging the generations and helping those who are younger understand the sacrifices veterans have made. It reminds us there's much to be learned from veterans. I am proud that Wish of a Lifetime has been able to offer these opportunities, not just for the seniors to see their dreams come true, but to educate and bond generations to celebrate our true heroes. I wish all veterans and their families a peaceful Veterans Day.
To submit a wish application or to help grant a wish through a donation, visit www.seniorwish.org