Updated: Jan 10, 2019
When a US Veteran asks you to do something, you do it. That is your job. You are obligated. You owe it to them as an American citizen. You have to, at least, try.
As I mentioned a few months ago (see the older posts below), a Vietnam veteran asked me for help. His name is John Metzler. He's my cousin, although we really don't know each other well. But, to be clear, I would have done this for anyone. While I'm thankful we share a last name, he's a veteran and he asked me for help. That's what mattered.
To recap: while he was serving our country in 1970, he received a letter from a little girl at St. Mark's Lutheran School and Church. In the letter -- one of those letters we've all written at one time or another -- a sixth grade student named DonnaCaye Ludemann wished him a Merry Christmas. She said she hoped he would come home soon and that all wars on earth would end. That sweet letter touched John's heart. He held on to it -- still keeps it near him today. It connected him to the people he was serving, it kept him focused and he says, alive. DonnaCaye's letter was honest and genuine. That's all it took to touch John's life. It was authentic. She spoke her truth and it made the difference.
Back in May, John asked me to find DonnaCaye. He needed to tell her thank you, he said.
A quick Internet search lead me to her. I wrote her a letter. I explained why I was trying to reach her and hoped she wouldn't think I was some sort of con-artist.
She called me immediately, honored her letter had meant so much to one solider. John's family and I hatched a plan. DonnaCaye needed to come to Idaho. It had to be a surprise and it needed to happen on Veteran's Day.
To her credit, DonnaCaye, didn't flinch.
"Would you be willing to fly to Idaho to meet John?"
"Yes. Of course."
From mid-July to early November, John daughter, Soul Warrior Tina and I put a plan together. It would be a small family moment, we thought. Something simple and sweet. What we forgot is that neither Tina nor I are capable of doing anything small.
Fast forward to last Sunday, Nov. 11. The Wendell American Legion Hall was packed. Veterans groups from all over the Valley had heard about our plan and came to be part of it. Members of Idaho's senate staff were there. Our families were there. Random strangers came in just to see what was happening. The local newspaper showed up. CBS news covered it.
DonnaCaye was hidden away in a corner office. John's wife told him some of their friends were stopping by the Hall for a few minutes. She thought it "might be fun to stop in and see what was going on." When John arrived to see not only his friends but his family there, he admitted to wondering why his kids would be at a Veteran's Day event. He wondered "why the hell" there were pictures of him on the wall. He says it never occurred to him DonnaCaye, known in the family as the "little girl", would be there.
But then, a US Army veteran in full dress uniform appeared escorting a blonde woman. John knew who it was at that moment.
"You're real," he kept saying. "You're real."
DonnaCaye offered a warm smile and a long hug. As she did when she was in 6th grade, she lifted his spirits and supported a solider with unconditional kindness.
It has been my honor to be part of this event. It reminded me it takes three things to make a difference in this world; time, talent and truth
Time. John asked me for a little bit of time. We, as a nation, asked him to leave his wife and infant daughter and go to war a foreign country. When he got there we gave him two choices; kill or be killed. His life has been forever altered for that experience. My life will be forever blessed by helping John find DonnaCaye
Talent. Tina is a force of nature. She has an ability to make people feel safe and welcome. She has a talent for talking to people and making them feel like family. It was her passion for this project that filled the room.
Truth. What made that letter special was it's authenticity. DonnaCaye then and now speaks her truth. She is genuine and that came through her words when she was 11 and it radiates through her smile now.
Time, talent and truth. We all have those qualities. We can all be a postive force in this world. Every single one of us.
One of the other many, many take-aways from the weekend was the importance of trusting the journey. Early in this process it became clear to Tina and me we were being guided by sources outside ourselves. The veterans who were helping us make this event happen asked us to do a few things we weren't sure how to do. We have never served in the military and certainly never have seen combat. While we didn't truly understand how important this event was to the veterans outside of John, we could see by their reactions this reunion was somethng special. We agreed to trust the journey -- to follow the path where it took us. There were moments when neither of us were sure what we were doing, but we just had to follow through. It turned out to be an amazing and beautiful experience. One neither of us would trade -- but had we hesitated at any turn it wouldn't have happened. We trusted the process and each other.
Each Veteran's Day, I post something online about appreciating those who served. I might text my brother and other veterans, but really, I don't do too much to celebrate or even honor it.
This event will change that. After meeting and working with the men and women who have served our country over the last few weeks, I found it imperative to start paying more attention. These are people who were willing to die for me...and you. I don't know what to do or how to do it, but I feel called to do something to help and honor these men and women, not just in November, but every day. I don't know what that will look like but I'll come up with something.
I really wish I could go up to every US Veteran, especially those of the Vietnam era, look them in the eye and say this:
"Welcome home. I'm so glad you are here. I appreciate the sacrafices you and your family have made and on behalf of a grateful nation, it's ok to tell your story. In fact, it's time."
I'm listening. If you have a story to tell, all you have to do is call.
The story is scheduled to air Friday, Nov. 16 on the CBS Evening News. Here in Idaho's Magic Valley, it should air on KMVT channel 11 at 5:30. It will also be online. I'll post links when I get them.
While I origianlly envisioned the "Veterans Day Project" to be short term, it's clear it's not meant to be. So watch this space for more stories about our veterans, their service and their lives.