Thursday, August 23, 2007

Soldiers' Angels at the VFW Convention Kansas City

Soldiers' Angels Kansas City has spent the last five days going to the 108th VFW Convention and spreading the word about Soldiers' Angels and how the wonderful veterans and many auxiliary members can help support our troops.

All the Soldiers' Angels had a wonderful time, shared some great camaraderie, met some fantastic people and generally felt rewarded personally and as Angels for the experience.

I'll start at the end because it highlighted the reason why we were there. Angel Christy and I went to the closing party Wednesday evening at the Liberty Memorial Park in Kansas City. As we were preparing to leave, we came across a group of people who were standing in a circle, clasping hands raised above their heads as they sang to Lee Greenwood's, "Proud to be an American". We got a little video and, as usual, asked the group to give a message to our troops so we could send it on CD when we send our care packages. After recording the message, a few folks came over and we talked about what Soldiers' Angels does and how we would like to work with the VFW to extend the amount of support we can provide to our active duty and veteran service members.

A lady and husband from Minnesota told us that their son had served two tours in Iraq. He was wounded and received a purple heart on his last tour. He is going back to Iraq at the end of this year. He's married with three children and one on the way that he will not be here to see born. We thanked her and her husband for sharing their story and then we gave them some "Thank You for your Service" cards to give him and his friends. As I was explaining what we do and the process for signing him up and how he or others could sign up friends, I said, "And then he will be adopted by an Angel..."

I couldn't finish the speech I had given so many times before because this mother broke into tears, put her arms around my neck, hugging me and crying on my shoulder, repeating over and over again, "Thank you for what you do. Thank you."

You know, I couldn't speak for a moment because the tears were choking me up, too. I know how soldiers must feel when a stranger like me thanks them for their service. It wasn't me. I really hadn't done anything special. I did not go into danger like our men and women do every day. In fact, I had been having a great time while they are "over there" doing the hard work. Angels have a lot of different reasons why we join and support our military. I do it because I think it is the right thing to do. It is what we are supposed to do when our people go to war on our behalf. But, I realized that this gratitude was not really for me. It was for all of the Angels who go out there and support the troops unconditionally, untiring every day and the many people who donate time, money or supplies and make it possible for us to support our troops.

So, I hugged her back until she had composed herself and I had, too.

Pardon me. For this one moment, I have no pictures. My arms were a little busy at the time. Besides, I don't think I would have had the presence of mind to snap them.

I wanted to tell people about the Veterans of Foreign Wars. If you don't know, it's not just an organization of old soldiers and their wives getting together Saturday for a beer and to share a few laughs (though they do). These are people who have served our country in a time of war, continue to serve through many projects and programs to assist veterans, their families and many other community programs for children and the under privileged. Like the Military Order of the Cootie, a fun and hard working group of people that "wear funny hats", that volunteers at the VA and works to provide for the needs at the VFW National Homes.

There was another recurring theme that I recognized among these many veterans and their families: they give even more because their sons and daughters carry on the tradition, serving our nation as their parents have for years. Many VFW members told us that their son or daughter was serving in the military today. People know what our men and women are going through every day to complete their missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. We often ask where do we find such people? It is by the example set by such fine people as the Veterans of Foreign Wars that we continue to field the best and the bravest from the Land of the Free.

On Tuesday, a lady came by our booth and purchased a Soldiers' Angels t-shirt. As we had done hundreds of times in the last few days, we explained what Soldiers' Angels was about, sharing a few of our favorite "support" stories about the kinds of things that we did to support our troops. The lady thanked us for our support of the troops and then explained to us why she wanted the t-shirt. She had been a nurse in Vietnam. She would fly on the med-evacs with the soldiers, just like the many wonderful medics, nurses and doctors who do the same for our wounded today. She told us that the nurses that would fly with the wounded were called "Angels". She said the t-hirt would remind her of that always.

We were extremely fortunate throughout the convention. We took turns going to the different speeches by the visiting presidential candidates. Some we were merely able to shake hands or get a picture of, while others we were able to hand some literature and an angel pin with the opportunity for some photo ops. Throughout their speeches, all of them stated the our troops and our veterans have and continue to do extraordinary things that deserve our continued support.

This is Angel Stephanie talking with potential presidential candidate Fred Thompson after she gave him the card, brochure and pin, he diligently read it and commented that, "Supporting the troops was the right thing to do, but we should support them in everything including their mission." Here's hoping some of these folks will put their money where their speeches are and remember that Soldiers' Angels supports the troops every day.

After Angel Christy handed the information and pin to Sen. Barak Obama, he asked her if she would like to have her picture taken with him. Of course, we Angels are always looking for a way to get the information out about our organization and never turn down an opportunity for a little more publicity. While you might not be able to see the back, Christy is wearing a Soldiers' Angels jean jacket (which was extremely popular at the event). She has her Angel pin in the collar.

We also got to see President Bush give his speech. All of the Angels were excited because it was the first time any of us had an opportunity to see and hear a sitting president live and in person. While the hand shake opportunities were limited, we were able to talk to one of his staff named Joshua. We told Joshua that Soldiers' Angels wanted the president to have a "May No Airman Go Unloved" challenge coin, an Angel pin and information about how our organization supports the troops. To our surprise, Joshua had heard of Soldiers' Angels and asked us if we were in Tennessee. We told him that there were Angels everywhere. He thanked us and told us he would get the coin and information to the president. He made sure that he had Soldiers' Angels mailing address so that the president could send something to our organization (so, Patti, et al, if you are reading this, check your mail in a couple weeks for something from the White House).

Even after meeting the candidates and listening to the president, the most exciting moments for us were getting to meet some real heroes and showing them that Soldiers' Angels cares. During a lull in speechifying, we ran into James E. Livingston, Medal of Honor recipient(left). Then we were able to meet Don Ballard, also a Medal of Honor recipient (left). Both of these gentlemen gave us a few minutes of their time and permission to share their photos. In fact, Don Ballard said that he had heard of Soldiers' Angels and told us to "keep up the good work!"

On Wednesday, as we waited for the president, we met some local heroes who had been serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. We told them about Soldiers' Angels, thanked them for their service and handed them a pin or coin. Some of them had heard of Soldiers' Angels and were very happy to see us. We collected a lot of memories, handshakes and hugs that day.

We also met John Miska from VFW Post 8208, Arlington, Virginia (right) who couldn't say enough about Soldiers' Angels and how our organization had helped the VFW pay for the gas they used to take the wounded to dinner and on other outings. He said to say hello to Lynette from Soldiers' Angels. She's our coordinator at Walter Reed Hospital. Everywhere we went, when ran into Big John and he would tell any VFW member present that Soldiers' Angels was endorsed by his VFW post.

We also met John Hanson from Grand Forks, North Dakota VFW Post 1874 who was the VFW State Commander 2004-2005 (center). He knew all about Soldiers' Angels and had our VP of Public Relations, Shelle Michaels on speed dial. He called her up to report that he had met us and we were all having a great time during the presentation of all the VFW state departments and follow up concert with Lorrie Morgan, the choir from the VFW National Homes for Children and the Army American Idol winner.

Our Angel gear was pretty popular as were the Angel camouflage bear. Many who bought it were sending it to a loved one over seas or to place it in a care package for a soldier they supported. We shook hands and shared the story of Soldiers' Angels with thousands of wonderful people. We sold our Angel gear to raise money for our Vet-Packs. Some people stopped and shared their stories from when they were deployed in defense of our nation. Patriotic colors and themes abounded at the convention and many loved our Red, White and Blue Soldiers' Angels t-shirts. We also met a VFW group from Lautenberg, Germany who knew all about Soldiers' Angels because they work with Landstuhl Medical Center and had seen our First Response Back Packs for the wounded.

This group of great ladies are from the VFW Auxiliary in Farmington, Missouri, right outside of St. Louis. They told us they were working on a project for Fisher House at the St. Louis VA Medical Center that specializes in polytrauma. They told us that they were looking forward to working with Soldiers' Angels to make sure our troops and their families get the best care possible.

We also learned that it was a tradition to exchange pins from the different VFW posts , commanders and presidents of the auxiliary. So, we broke into our private stashes of pins and carried Soldiers' Angels cards wherever we went. It presented a great opportunity to talk with people about our organization and how we could work with the Veterans of Foreign Wars to bring the most support to our troops from every state.

We were also fortunate to meet the next outstanding generation of defenders. A young troop of Army JROTC from Ft. Leavenworth High School received the National VFW award for outstanding drill team. The young men and women were dressed in period uniforms of the United States Calvary.

On the last day of the convention, there were a lot of active duty and recently returned Guard and Reserve military who had been invited to hear the President speak. We sent Angel Julie off to find some more that we might have missed in the crowded auditorium so we could make sure that we had given them each a personal "thank you for your service" from Soldiers' Angels.

To our surprise, she returned with a number of soldiers wearing a lot of brass that sparkled in the overhead lights. It was none other than LTG Caldwell, Commanding General, Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas; CSM Bruner, LTC Gilbreti, and Major Stroud.

LTG Caldwell immediately noticed our famous Soldiers' Angels coffee mug. He told all the people with him about how these coffee mugs can be seen all over the combat hospital in Baghdad. As we chatted some more, CSM Bruner shared with us that his brother was wounded in Iraq and was the recipient of one of our First Response Back Packs.

We gave each of the officers a Soldiers' Angels Challenge Coin and a "Thank You For Your Service" card. We asked LTC Gilbreti if he knew what an Angel coin was for and, before we could explain he said, "It means, whenever I meet an Angel, I have to buy them a beer!" We all had a good laugh and enjoyed speaking with such fantastic representatives of our armed forces. Then we posed for some pictures and a video with the group. All the officers sent a message of gratitude to the men and women serving on the battle front. Then LTG Caldwell shook our hands, thanked us for our support and gave us each a Commander's Challenge Coin for "Outstanding Performance" which we accepted on behalf of all Soldiers' Angels.

Soldiers' Angels would like to thank the Veterans of Foreign Wars for having us as an exhibitor at their convention and for welcoming us to all of their events. We weren't simply a group soliciting their assistance in supporting our troops, we were treated as honored guests wherever we went and invited to next years convention in Orlando, Florida. We are looking forward to working with the many VFW posts across the United States to bring support to our troops and seeing them at every convention in the years to come.

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