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March / April 2009

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March / April 2009


By Michael Keating

A“Goodwill Valentine’s Day Caravan” is what they called it. And that pretty much summed it up. But to describe more fully: It was a garrulous, rowdy, fun-loving circus of disparate groups crammed into a donated bus and U-Haul vans, all loaded down with unlikely and precious gifts intended with enormous affection and respect for the toughest yet the most vulnerable of America’s youth: its wounded men and women at Walter Reed. Oh, and did I say they were all from New York?

The entire production was put together and coordinated by VVA members from New York City under the direction of the United War Veterans Council and its impresario, Pat Gualtieri. The group involved as many organizations as possible. VVA Manhattan Chapter 126 and VVA Brooklyn Chapter 72 took leading roles. They were joined by the Metropolitan Transit Authority Veterans Association, the Samaritan Village Veterans Programs of Manhattan, the Ed Thompson Facility of Queens, the Brooklyn chapter of Nam Knights, the Never Forget Foundation, U-Haul International, HBO, Estee Lauder, Coach USA, the History Channel, the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, and the New York City Council. Did I mention Miss USA Long Island, Alyse Zwick?

After a morning press conference in Manhattan, volunteers boarded a 50-seat Coach USA bus donated by Vietnam veteran and company president Tom Lewis. Other volunteers climbed aboard U-Haul trucks emblazoned with patriotic logos. The donated trucks also carried the many, many Valentine gifts that had been gathered for Walter Reed’s wounded warriors. Five hours later, the caravan arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, where the group spent the night. Early the next morning, the Goodwill Valentine’s Day Caravan passed through the gates of Walter Reed and pulled in front of Mologne House, where wounded soldiers are housed once they can leave the hospital.

Then VVA’s own volunteer army of forty went into action. The U-Haul trucks were unloaded: many dozen red-white-and-blue wicker baskets full of candy and treats donated by U-Haul, cartons of men’s and women’s toiletries from Estee Lauder, and boxes of clothing. The oversized “Thank You For Serving” poster boards, each filled with hand-written goodwill messages from New Yorkers, soon completely encircled the community dining room and the lobby of Mologne House, along with other congratulatory signs and banners.

Meanwhile, the MTA Pipes & Drums Corps unloaded their instruments. The unearthly drone of bagpipes being warmed and tuned blended with the joking repartee of those unloading boxes of Girl Scout cookies donated by Timothy and Jennifer Glover. Meanwhile, inside, the dining room was transformed. Hundreds of New York Hook and Ladder t-shirts and sweat shirts were lined up on tables, together with snack foods and candies, and U-Haul caps and shirts. HBO had DVD sets and promotional clothing from several of its programs, including The Sopranos and Sex and the City.

And there were Valentines. Hundreds of them, drawn and decorated by children. Some, part of a Kids to Kids program, were meant for the children of the men and women at Mologne House. Others were intended for the soldiers themselves. And there were lots of other Valentines, too, written by U-Haul employees nationwide.

Miss Long Island, her tiara glittering, led a delegation of ten volunteers who visited the severely wounded at Walter Reed’s hospital. They distributed gifts and Valentines. Many young men were photographed with New York’s beauty queen.

VVA Chapter 72 President Luigi Masu had another mission. He had a $2,000 check to present to Fisher House. Chapter member Hank Burke never forgot the care he had received at Walter Reed when he returned from Vietnam. So when he died, his family asked that, in lieu of flowers, people donate money to the chapter. Chapter 72 raised additional funds. Then, during Goodwill Valentine’s Day Caravan activities, Masu slipped around the corner from Mologne House to Fisher House to present the check.

In the lobby of Mologne House, the MTA Pipes & Drums performed a combination of patriotic and service songs. Then, much later in the day, they gathered with veterans and volunteers for wreath-laying and prayer at the World War I Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And in the gloaming, the bagpipers once again played the mournful, tentative affirmation of “Amazing Grace.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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