Invisible heroes seen

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Gary Tetz
Gary Tetz

I've written a lot about ageism. About how people don't value the contributions of seniors. About how long-term care residents are invisible and forgotten. About kids these days, and why they don't respect their elders. 

As raving tangents go, I'm generally not bullish on the prospects for societal culture change. But after recently traveling to Washington, D.C., with 10 World War II veterans and their 14 caregivers, I might have to reconsider.

They ranged from 83 to 94 years old and were chosen from nursing homes and independent living campuses in Oregon and Montana. The mission: visit the epic memorial to their sacrifice at the National Mall. The trip was conceived and funded by Vital Life, a Marquis and Consonus foundation, and Wish of a Lifetime, created by former National Football League player Jeremy Bloom to honor seniors who served country and community.

And honored they were, as celebrities and superstars. We could hardly take five steps without a stranger or 20 walking up to say, “Thank you for your service.” It's a phrase we must have heard hundreds of times over our three-day visit, and the veterans were amazed and a bit bewildered by the outpouring of affection by young and old alike.

In one of the most moving moments of the entire visit, a group of grade-school children spontaneously encircled our wheelchairs and walkers at the Korean War Veterans Memorial and sang “God Bless America.” 

“A tear sprang to my eye,” a former radio operator named Tom admitted to me later, as another tear threatened to spring to his eye.

To see so much unprompted kindness, so much respect, so much sincere gratitude showered on these unassuming heroes — especially by young people — was a perspective-altering experience. They'll never be the same, and neither will the rest of us who were there. 

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