Eagle Scout Project Raises More Than $16,000 For 'Trip of Honor'

The American Flag is a symbol of freedom and hope around the world. It's why 15-year-old Wesley Miller of Troop 331 in Collierville, TN dedicated his Eagle Scout Project to it, while raising an additional $16,000 to send WWII veterans back to the lands where they fought.

Wesley's project was two-fold. First, he erected a flagpole at the Forever Young Senior Veterans' office complete with lighting, landscaping, and a commemorative plaque. Secondly, he hoped to raise an additional $5,200 to fully fund a veteran's trip back to Europe with Forever Young in May.

Of course, if you do the math, Wesley raised enough additional funds to send three veterans on "The Beaches to the Bulge" Trip of Honor last month.

"We couldn't be more proud of Wesley's efforts to complete his project," said Executive Director, Daniel Hight. "We never dreamed he'd raise this much money to honor the Greatest Generation."

Furthermore, the flag that is now flying outside the Forever Young office is a WWII-era flag, waving 48-stars, a star for every state that was part of the union when WWII broke out. It is similar to the flags that flew at Mt. Suribachi and on the ships that assaulted the beaches of Normandy. It seems only fitting to fly this 48-star flag in honor of the men that Forever Young seeks to honor, the ones that saved the world's freedom over 70 years ago.

"Wesley was a delight to partner with on his project," Hight said. "He was thoughtful, intentional, and hard working. From the planning to the execution, he did an outstanding job. What I want to know is, when can I hire him?"

Here is the promotional video Wesley put together with WWII veteran, Ed Higginbothom:

We Owe a Special 'Thank You'

Phone rings.

“Hey this is Niki, your tour guide. I’m afraid to say your flight back to the United States is delayed by seven hours. You’re going to miss your connecting flight in Dallas.”

This is not the phone call you want to receive an hour before walking out the door to the airport with a group of 29 people, half of whom are between the ages of 89-94.

What would have been a 14-hour travel time back to Memphis now looked like it could be days. This is not the way we wanted to end a “Trip of Honor” that had, in every way, been nearly perfect.

Battle of the Bulge Veteran, Andy Dunavant, pleased with American Airlines

Battle of the Bulge Veteran, Andy Dunavant, pleased with American Airlines

It turns out…the plane that was supposed to pick us up in Frankfurt was late getting to Dallas. Once it got there, that plane broke down. American Airlines brought in another plane, only to find it wasn’t air-worthy either. Its’ brakes had to be replaced. It would be seven hours before the plane could get to us in Frankfurt.

But the most interesting things happened. Everyone, especially American Airlines, met the needs of our vets.

The Holiday Inn in Frankfurt allowed us to keep our rooms well past our check-out time. This enabled our vets to be comfortable. Many of them rested from a busy, honor-filled week.

When it was go-time, American Airlines arranged to have a 50-passenger bus pick us and our army of luggage up from the hotel and take us to the airport. On the way, the airline agent ran us through the pre-flight international security check. Once we arrived at the airport, American gave us curbside check-in for the entire group, something I’m told they don’t do in Frankfurt.

After that, they carted every one of our vets through the security check-point and to the gate. They made sure we would get out of Frankfurt as easily as possible. It was the best treatment our vets have ever received in a European airport.

But it didn’t stop there.

One of our hotel rooms

One of our hotel rooms

Since we missed our connection in Dallas, American put us up in the Hyatt Grand in the lobby of the airport. That meant not having to haul 50+ bags and 8 wheelchairs to and from a hotel down the road.

The next morning we woke to have breakfast at the nice restaurant in the lobby where we were given vouchers for an amount far more than any of us could eat.

Finally, the last move impressed us most. On Monday, our group was scheduled to fly to Memphis on three different flights throughout the day. This was less than ideal since we were traveling with elderly men who required lots of help.

But, we woke that morning to find American Airlines brought in a larger airplane to accommodate our group, allowing us to all fly home together.]

There is no telling how much money American Airlines spent to accommodate Forever Young, especially our veterans. We are so grateful and they have earned their name as “American” in every sense of the word, by honoring the men who gave them the freedom to fly around the world.

Well done, American. You served your country well.

Alcoa Foundation Comes Through For Battle of the Bulge Vets

Our organization is pleased to announce an extremely generous gift from Alcoa Foundation for $15,000. This donation will help send three veterans who fought in the Battle of the Bulge back to Belgium to honor the 70th anniversary of this historic battle.

It is our mission to bring honor, healing, and hope to these aging veterans by returning them to the places where they fought. The trips are a time for the vets to find peace and closure from the things they experienced during war.

What’s special about this September trip back to Belgium, is our veterans will have the opportunity to return to the exact points where they fought, to see the foxholes they dug and spent many freezing nights. Our tour guide is Belgian and was 12-years-old when the Battle of the Bulge took place. He has study it extensively, enabling our veterans to return to those exact spot if they choose.

Forever Young, it’s leaders, volunteers, and veterans are humbled by this generous gift from Alcoa Foundation. They have communicated clearly to us their love for veterans and for freedom and we are forever grateful.

Michael Petrina Loved WWII Veterans

Forever Young is deeply saddened by the loss of Michael Petrina who was a friend to our organization and WWII veterans. He was struck and killed by a vehicle on Saturday, May 10, 2014 in Nashville while on duty as a police officer.

Mike Petrina loved Forever Young,  especially our WWII vets. He attended one of our “Trip of Honors” to Washington DC with his “adopted” grandfather, Bill “Tailgunner” Drewry in April 2011. Mike made a huge impression on everyone who attended the trip because of his fun personality, serving heart, and love for the vets. Forever Young spent four nights in DC, so by the time we returned home, our group was deeply bonded.

At the end of the experience, Mike made an announcement to the vets, “I promise I will not let the WWII veterans be forgotten as long as I’m alive.” Everyone was in tears. The vets couldn’t believe a 21-year-old young man could care so deeply about them. He was unforgettable.

A few days before Michael was killed someone from the 2011 trip asked about him. Even the bus driver in Washington still asked about Mike three years later. How can we forget love, joy, passion, and true patriotism? When someone met Mike, he made them feel like the most special person on earth. He had a way of inviting you into his heart as if he had know you forever. There was an instant closeness with him, that no matter how long you knew him, you felt like a close friend.

Mike told me while in Washington,” I want to go on these trips with the WWII vets. I have so much respect for them and their sacrifice.” When we returned to Memphis, I told his mom, Joyce, how much he meant to the WWII vets and she said,” Mike has been interested in WWII since he was a little boy.” No doubt! Every time I asked Mike to honor our WWII vets, he was there. They had his heart!

Mike was one of the greatest young men I’ve ever known. Knowing there are young people in the world like Mike, gave me hope for the future of this country.  The world lost something great this week, but heaven is now happier than it has ever been. We will remember Mike for the rest of our lives and we praise God for sharing him with us.

Charity Fight by Bumpus Harley Davidson Raises $11,000 for Normandy Veterans

Bumpus Harley Davidson raised thousands of dollars for Forever Young as the Collierville motorcycle shop hosted its first-ever sanctioned mix martial arts charity fight. The money was raised to help return Normandy D-Day veterans back to France for the 70th anniversary.

Bumpus, 98.1 The Max, and The Trophy Room sponsored the sold-out “Havoc For Heroes” event, which raised $11,000 for the aging heroes.

“We were thrilled this highly professional event brought in enough money to sponsor two D-Day veterans,” said Founder & President of Forever Young, Diane Hight. “We couldn’t honor our WWII vets without businesses like Bumpus Harley Davidson who care enough to give back to our senior veterans.”

Before the fights started, Gideon Sullivan of Havoc MMA said to the WWII veterans in attendance, “You fought for us and now it’s our time to fight for you.” The crowd cheered and gave a standing ovation to the veterans as they stood on a second level balcony (see attached picture).

Forever Young is extremely grateful that there are people like Joe Kilpatrick, Jerry Bumpus, & Jim Church who truly understand the sacrifice of our WWII veterans & are willing to work hard to make a difference in their lives. Our Normandy veterans will never forget it.

The Reagan Legacy Foundation Partners With Forever Young for 70th Anniversary of D-Day

                       Forever Young Founder, Diane Hight, with President Ronald Reagan's son, Michael Reagan

             

         Forever Young Founder, Diane Hight, with President Ronald Reagan's son, Michael Reagan

Forever Young is pleased to announce a generous gift from The Reagan Legacy Foundation that will fund the return of five American D-Day veterans to Normandy, France for the 70th anniversary of the historic invasion.

On June 6, 1944, 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of the heavily fortified French coastline to fight Nazi Germany. More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, and by day’s end on June 6, the Allies gained a foothold in Normandy. The D-Day cost was high as more than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded, but more than 100,000 soldiers began the march across Europe to defeat Hitler.

The 70th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy will be commemorated by many Allied Heads of State and hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world from June through the end of August. Forever Young will be returning 13 Normandy veterans for this special occasion.

“This gift means everything to our elderly warriors, for they would not have the opportunity to return to the beaches of Normandy without people like Michael Reagan and members of The Reagan Legacy Foundation who care enough to give financial support,” said Forever Young Founder and President, Diane Hight.

Diane met Michael Reagan in Normandy on a WWII Trip of Honor in May 2013. It was there that the two forged an alliance to help fund this year’s historic trip for the 70th anniversary.

“The Reagan Legacy Foundation clearly understands the urgency of this important mission and thanks to them, our WWII veterans will once again see the land they liberated,” Hight said.

“I am very honored to support these distinguished veterans who truly changed the course of history,” said Michael Reagan. “The sacrifices they made so that others could live free should never be forgotten.”

The Reagan Legacy Foundation is a non-profit, charitable organization founded by Michael Reagan, eldest son of President Ronald Reagan. The organization seeks to advance the causes President Reagan held dear and to memorialize the accomplishments of his presidency.

Ronald Reagan was the first American president to commemorate the anniversary of the Normandy invasion. In his moving speech at Pointe de Hoc on June 6, 1984, President Reagan honored D-Day veterans stating, “The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.”

As part of the 70th anniversary commemoration, The Reagan Legacy Foundation will also open a permanent exhibit at the Airborne Museum located in the heart of Sainte Mère Eglise, Normandy. The museum is dedicated to the American Paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne who, as members of the Allied forces, swept in and began the liberation on the streets of this small but extremely important town. The exhibit will feature a 15-minute educational film highlighting Ronald Reagan’s personal military service in WWII, his 1984 speech at Normandy, and his passionate fight for freedom and democracy throughout the world. Forever Young’s veterans will participate in the opening of the exhibit.

A Letter to a Veteran from a 5th Grader

LetterToHulan.jpg

Many of our senior veterans adore young children. That’s why we try to incorporate them into our trips whenever we can by having them greet the veterans at the memorials or simply write letters. The vets love to see the younger generations excited about World War II and the history of how the they saved the world’s freedom.

Here is one letter written to Army Air Corps Bombardier, Hulan Roberts:

Dear Mr. Hulan Roberts,

 Thank you for taking your time to serve in WWII. Serving your country, your flag, and keeping all civilians safe. You must have guts harder than sheetrock to fight in WWII with all the terrible things that happened in that war and piloting the B-17 Bombardier. Doing all those great things takes guts and not many people like you and  all your comrades who fought, and all the men, and women who served, or serving in the military have guts that strong. So for that I am very thankful for your service.

Sincerely,

Zach (5th grader)

More Than a Coincidence...

Things happen on our trips that are often unexplainable, things that can only be described as divine. This special moment happened to two Korean War combat vets from Minnesota who joined us in Washington for our October Trip of Honor.

We spent four nights in DC, so believe me, we develop quite a friendship with Tony and Frank after being together for that many days.  It was so much fun to teach them to say, “Y’all” and “Fixin” and they promised they would return to the North with their new “improved” language. But just before it all ended, the most remarkable thing happened.

On departure day, their flight left out of D.C. an hour after our’s, so Delta took them to company’s VIP suite so they could relax before their flight.  While there, two Air Force officers asked them if they would like to participate in a ceremony.  Tony and Frank were interested, but didn’t want to miss their flight.  Delta promised they’d get them back in time for their departure.

The Korea combat vets were taken down to the flight line where two caskets were being removed from an aircraft, to be taken to Arlington Cemetery for burial.  One casket held the remains of two crewmembers from an aircraft that had crashed and the other held the body of another serviceman, all located near the border.

What border, you ask? Afghanistan?  No, these caskets contained the remains of casualties from…the Korean War.  Tony and Frank saluted as they brought their comrades home from Korea after 60 years.

What are the odds of Korean War servicemen being brought home for burial in Arlington and being welcomed by two of their own?  Two men who had been there, in combat, and now they were there… saluting and remembering the sacrifice of their comrades.  If it had been 15 minutes earlier or later, they couldn’t have participated in this emotional homecoming.  Only God could arrange something like this.  To those Korean servicemen who gave their lives for freedom, welcome home to America.  It makes me sad to think their precious lives were cut short and the hurt their families had to endure in this great loss.

Rest in Peace.  You are not forgotten.

A Letter from a French Woman

It’s too difficult to fully communicate the honor our veterans receive while in places like Normandy and Belgium. People there are overwhelmed with gratitude that these men put their lives on the line to free their countries and defeat Germany. Here is a letter from a woman we met while in Normandy (the letter has been edited for length):

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Hight,

I was very shaken and proud and in awe to have been able to meet WWII American veterans. I would never have thought that possible and here there were eleven in front of me. From my dad and my grand mother’s memories, American soldiers who came to rescue France were more than heroes. I was brought up feeling that way and you can imagine how wonderful it was for me to be able to thank them myself. I called my dad that night and the first question he asked was “Did you thank them? Because we owe them so much!”

My dad was a 9-years-old little boy when the war finished and he told me so many times about American soldiers helping us. I just loved meeting those gentlemen (and I pride myself of being one of the French ladies who have kissed an American soldier came to free my country! though I could never have imagine it would ever take place 69 years later.) The few gentlemen to whom I talked told me to pass it on to my children. So please tell them from me something else too. I’m a teacher in a junior high school close to Paris. When I got back to school I mentioned to my students that I had lived a wonderful experience on my school break. They wanted to know about it. I hesitated a while because where I teach the children have many problems and are not known to be able to concentrate or respect teachers. I thought they wouldn’t understand what I had lived in meeting WWII veterans, but I decided to give it a try.

First, I discovered they didn’t know a bit about WWII. One vaguely thought about it being in the Forties period. So as you see there were many explanations to give. Well, I did, and the 27 of them just listened in complete silence for 45 minutes!!! I told them about me being so thankful to have been able to meet veterans and then asked them what they would have done. And it came as, “I would have said ‘thank you’. Can we meet them too, Miss? Please take us to see the veterans you met! You have to take us!”

So please, tell all the gentleman whom I met that I’m passing on, and I told my students to pass on too. I was enthralled by their reaction because believe me, I’m not working in a nice and cozy area. But those kids just listened with all their ears. So please, from a bunch of 12-years-old from France : THANK YOU!!!!! That just makes my experience even more wonderful. If I ever can take them to Normandy, I will, and who knows, they might meet veterans like I did! I’ll go now. I also wanted to tell you that I bought the local newspaper the day after we met. There is a little article about the veterans. It’s in French of course, but I intend to translate it and to send it to your association.

By the way if I can do anything now or later helping you with French or something related to France, I would be glad to oblige. Thank you for what you do, it’s marvelous! Please do also tell hello from me to all of the gentleman that remember me. Thank you. It was a great honor and a pleasure to meet them and talk to them.

Sincerely yours,

Isabelle R.

(French mother of four)

 

An Innocence Worth Giving Up

Diane's father, Leland Oliger

Diane's father, Leland Oliger

As far back as I can remember, fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific meant something monumental to my father, Leland Oliger. It is true, and even he would admit it, war defined him; not because it’s what he loved, but because he became a man.

My father was only 17 years-old when he stepped onto the decks of the USS Eugene. It was on that ship, where he, like many, lost his childhood innocence due to war.

We find this to be true of many of the veterans. On one “Trip of Honor” to Washington DC, Dr. Luanne Cox asked Von Dent, one of our vets, where he grew up and very seriously he stated, “I was born in Arkansas but I grew up on the islands of the South Pacific.” They went to war as teenagers, students, and farmers, but became soldiers, warriors, and men overnight.

It was in the waters of the South Pacific that my dad also learned that the grass wasn’t always greener on the other side. He was ready to go to war because he hated working on the farm, especially picking cotton. But in his boyish and naive mind, he believed that war had to be better than hot, tiring, work on the farm. It didn’t take long for him to realize that Arkansas farm life was a slice of heaven compared to someone trying to end your life.

Returning these warriors back to the places where they fought is extremely satisfying for the veterans. Seeing the gratitude and honor in the countries they liberated makes the loss of their innocence worth it all.

My father died suddenly in 1982, and I regret that he never had the opportunity to go on one of our “Trips of Honor.” Along with his indescribable pride for fighting for his country, he would have enjoyed being with his comrades and remembering how a bunch of boys from the United States of America defeated a global evil to save the world’s freedom. He would have loved it.

 

Posted by Diane Hight

Former TV News Reporter Named Executive Director

Collierville, TN – (June 25, 2013) – Forever Young Senior Veterans is growing. We’re pleased to announce our very first hire after seven years as an all-volunteer team.

“We have attained an unprecedented level of success in honoring our nation’s senior veterans,” said Dr. Luanne Cox, Vice-President of Forever Young. “Our next step was to hire the right person to lead us into the future.

Forever Young Senior Wish welcomes Daniel Hight, formerly of News Channel 3, as the Executive Director.

“His impeccable integrity, strong leadership skills, and compassionate heart made him the perfect choice to carry on our urgent mission of honoring the WWII generation,” Dr. Cox said.

For the last five years, Daniel served the Mid-South as a Multimedia Journalist for WREG-TV and WMC-TV. He’s a graduate of the University of Memphis and has completed work towards a Master’s of Theology from Golden Gate Baptist Seminary. His skills, resources, and storytelling abilities are a good fit for the specific needs of the organization.

“I am thrilled to be joining such a wonderful team,” said Daniel Hight. “The organization does a great work in the community by providing hope and healing for senior veterans, a group which is often overlooked in our society. I look forward to helping Forever Young build on its momentum for the future.”

A Letter from a Daughter

18-Year-Old Bill "Tailgunner" Drewry in 1943

18-Year-Old Bill "Tailgunner" Drewry in 1943

Elizabeth Drewry Responds to her Father’s ‘Trip of honor’

My emotional highlight of Forever Young’s April 2011 trip to Washington DC for World War II veterans was watching my Dad salute his fallen comrades as a bugler played Taps.

We were standing at the Tennessee column of the WWII Memorial, where the veterans had gathered.  They had just finished naming the dead–calling out one by one all the boys they knew who hadn’t come home.  As the last bugle note faded to silence, tourists young and old, from all over the world pressed forward, eager to speak to the veterans.  They wiped tears from their eyes, saying over and over, “Thank you. Thank you for your service.”

Our group of heroes shook hands and said with understated dignity that they didn’t consider themselves special, just men and women with a crucial job to do.  So they took the hill, tended the wounded, escaped from prison camp, stormed the beach, parachuted into enemy territory. They saved lives and protected freedom.

My own Dad was a tailgunner on a B-24, The Green Hornet.  He was seventeen when he signed up for service and flew his first mission a few days after his nineteenth birthday. Like thousands of others, he served his country, returned home, got a job, married, had children, and never spoke of his war experiences.

Only after we were grown did we, his family, hear stories of what it was like to fly bombing runs over Germany in heavy clouds and flak.  We heard about how loud the planes were, how bitterly cold, how often they ran low on fuel and had to “land on fumes.”  We heard about the heart-stopping moment Dad sat in his tailgunner’s position, eye to eye with the German pilot of an ME 262 jet fighter on an attack curve.

But mostly we learned about Dad’s regard for his fellow crew members, and the special bond they formed over the course of 35 missions. In their later years, they reached out to contact one another, corresponded, and visited.  Of that brave crew, Dad is now the “last man standing.” When he was interviewed by the NBC Today Show about this special visit to the WWII Memorial, he said he wished only that his fellow crew members were there to receive the honors, and that he would accept on their behalf.

The outpouring of gratitude and respect for our veterans was the hallmark of every stop on the trip.  We saw it at the Marine Museum, where soldiers stood at attention in the rain to salute our arrival, at the Air Force Memorial, the Iwo Jima monument, and the other war memorials, as if people had been waiting for this chance to meet and thank our heroes. At airport arrivals and departures, our veterans were celebrated with cheers and handshakes, even a water canon salute over our plane arriving in DC.  We heard bands strike up the songs of all the branches of service–”Over hill, over dale….Anchors away, my boys….From the halls of Montezuma….Off we go into the wild blue yonder”–each stirring anthem catching in my throat.

I can’t overemphasize the efficiency and hard work of Diane Hight and the Forever Young organizers of the trip, supported in their efforts by Travel Leaders of Collierville, Woodsbridge Elks Lodge, the Memphis Fire Department, Bellevue Baptist Church and other generous individuals and groups. Every detail was attended to, every contingency considered, so that the trip was enjoyable and comfortable for the veterans and their family members. Logistics aside, what gives this program its special character is the obvious affection and regard Diane displays for the veterans–each one of them is made to feel personally honored and appreciated.

My Dad, “Tailgunner,” had the trip of a lifetime.  So did his family members who were lucky enough to be part of the group. It was an experience we will remember all our lives.