Ceremony honors service of two local WWII veterans

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When TMC Hospice volunteer and retired Air National Guard Lt. Col. Dave Falkner got the assignment to recognize a local resident as part of the We Honor Veterans program, he called to see if anyone else was a veteran. That’s how veterans Leonard Groh, 93, and Clara Robinson, 98, became the center of attention one morning this week at their assisted living home in central Tucson.

During World War II, Groh was a mechanic with the Army Air Corps, working on B-17s in Greenland. Though he wasn’t in a combat unit, he and his comrades would at times face the perilous task of going on recovery missions into a cold sea, including riding skis to get to stranded crewmen.

Robinson, a member of the Woman’s Air Corp, likes to say she was in for the duration – she joined as soon as possible after the WAC was created in May 1942. She notes with pride that the last digits of her Army serial number were 045. She was in Paris when the war ended in Europe and in Japan when the war ended there. She left the military in 1948.

Both veterans were honored with a short ceremony where they were presented with a plaque that reads: “We pay special tribute to you for your military service to American and for advancing the universal hope of freedom and liberty for all.” In addition, they received a lapel pin, a small flag, a patriotic quilt and a World War II Veteran decal.

In addition to Falkner, other service members honoring the veterans included SMSgt. Rose Mardula with the 162nd Air National Guard, Specialist David Powell formerly with the U.S. Army and CMSgt. Mike Flake with the Air Force Reserves.

After providing the mementos to the veterans, the service members stood together, offering a last tribute salute to them both. Many people in attendance were visibly moved by the ceremony, including Groh’s wife, who lives with him in the same care home, and his two children.

The impetus behind the We Honor Veterans program is to provide simple acts of gratitude at the end of life to provide a final opportunity for veterans to know their service was not in vain and that they are appreciated.

At TMC Hospice, alone, more than 300 veterans are cared for each year, with the need only growing. Presently, according to the national World War II Museum, almost 500 World War II veterans are dying each day with only about 855,000 veterans remaining out of the 16 million who served. And this doesn’t include service members from other eras.

Click to learn more about the TMC Hospice We Honor Veterans program and how to get involved.

TMC nurse helps give “America’s greatest treasures” extraordinary experience

Sandi Triplett TMC Orthopaedics Manager

Sandi Triplett
TMC Orthopaedics Manager

It was only three days, but it was three days Sandi Triplett will never forget.  The TMC Orthopaedics Manager volunteered with Honor Flight Southern Arizona, a non-profit organization whose mission is to send as many World War II veterans to the National WWII Memorial in Washington D.C. as donations will allow.  “I felt compelled to do this the second I read about it.  My father was a WWII veteran, so I had that connection,” she said.  “I wanted to go to the Washington D.C. mall and see things through the eyes of these veterans.”  It just so happened that she got to experience it with these veterans on the anniversary of D-Day.

The men and women from Honor Flight #10

The men and women from Honor Flight #10

There were 25 veterans total, all between the ages of 86 and 94, including two women.  They’re people who availed themselves in a national effort to keep America safe during WWII, and are considered America’s greatest treasures.  Triplett was a “guardian” for 88-year-old Irwin (Wynn) Freedman, who was in Germany during the war.  “He told us about the good things he experienced, and the bad things.  He told us things that made us cry, made us cringe, and made us laugh.  Stories about what happened to him, where he was, what he did, and what he witnessed,” said a tearful Triplett.  She recalled one story in particular.  “He told me that at one point, they didn’t have any cover during a firefight, so they piled dead bodies up in front of them to use as a shield to hide behind.

“Some of the things he saw and shared with us were unbelievable.  I can’t even imagine how difficult it was for these people to be reintroduced into society after the war.”

Irwin (Wynn) Freedman WWII Veteran

Irwin (Wynn) Freedman
WWII Veteran

For Wynn, it was so difficult that he knew in his gut he couldn’t return home.  He explained to Triplett that although they didn’t call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) back then, it’s exactly what he had.  Triplett noted, “These men and women were expected to come home, and go back to life as it was before the war.  Nobody talked about what happened when they were gone.”  When Wynn finally decided he absolutely could not go back to the U.S., the military sent him to Switzerland and England for a few weeks of R&R in each location.  To this day, Wynn applauds the decision.  “I was able to relax, and I started to see things better.  I finally felt like maybe I could go home,” he told Triplett. 

Although these veterans served different roles in different parts of the world during the war, for three days, that war is what connected them.  Honor Flight offers these veterans a chance to talk about their experiences with others who truly understand, and share their stories – before they are lost.  Some vets finally got a chance to heal from the thoughts and emotions that had haunted them, or were buried – for years and sometimes decades. 

The trip proved to be especially therapeutic for a veteran named Tony Alvarez.  As Triplett explained, “Tony and his brother both went to war.  His brother died the first day of the Normandy invasion.  Tony told me that something had been missing in his heart all these years.  He felt like he needed to ‘find’ his brother his entire life.  Sitting there in his wheelchair at the National WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C., he told me that he finally found his brother.  He felt like his life was complete, and he didn’t have to look for him anymore.”

It was just one of many powerful moments she got to share while on the trip. 

Honor Flight #10

Honor Flight #10

Other heartwarming moments happened literally everywhere this group went.  “Every time we entered or exited an airport, lines of people cheered for these vets,” Triplett explained.  For these men and women, Honor Flight gives them an opportunity to experience a proper send off and homecoming.  “One of the veterans told me that when he came home from the war, he got on a troop carrier, then onto a bus, rode it to his town, and walked three miles to his house.  His cheering crowd was his mother who hugged him and cried when he got home.”  There were no welcome home events, no thank you celebrations, and certainly no crowds cheering with excitement.  But during this Honor Flight, there was no escaping the appreciation that was long overdue.

The ‘thank you for your service’ comments and handshakes didn’t just happen at the airport.  They happened all along the entire journey.

Sandi speaking with a WWII Veteran

Sandi speaking with a WWII Veteran

“Flags waved and patriotic songs played.  There was this amazing pomp and circumstance everywhere we went.  People would spontaneously cheer for them.  Little kids ran up to them to shake their hands and thank them for what they did for this country.  It was truly great to witness.  These veterans finally got that recognition and celebration that they never got when they came back from the war,” she said.

By day three, the entire group was physically and emotionally drained – but in a good way.  And although the trip is over, their lives will be forever impacted.  

Triplett will – without a doubt – keep in touch with Wynn and his family.  In fact, next week she plans to bring him some pictures from the trip, and a cake – on what will be his 89th birthday.

Irwin (Wynn) Freedman WWII Veteran

Irwin (Wynn) Freedman
WWII Veteran

Honor Flight says as part of their responsibility to keep these veterans from being forgotten, and to thank them for a job they did so long ago, they will provide any WWII veteran living in Southern Arizona a three-day trip to Washington, D.C. to visit the National WWII Memorial – at no cost.  Ongoing fundraising efforts and the hard work of dedicated volunteers make it possible.  They are always looking for volunteers to serve as “guardians,” although the volunteers are asked to pay their own way, typically about $1000 for the entire trip.  Honor Flight wants to give each veteran the opportunity to feel the impact of their service as well as our nation’s gratitude.

For more information about Honor Flight Southern Arizona, please click here

Wynn (seated) with Triplett, Enid Freedman (Wynn's wife) and Merle Triplett.

Wynn (seated) with Triplett, Enid Freedman (Wynn’s wife) and Merle Triplett.

UPDATE:  Triplett and her husband Merle took photos from the trip and a special cake to Wynn on his birthday!  The Tripletts visited with Wynn and his wife Enid.  As the group looked at the photos, Wynn described what was happening in each picture.  He shared his feelings about what he experienced, and the people he met during that snapshot in time.  “Wynn and Enid are amazing people.  During the evening, it was such a pleasure to learn more about thier lives,” said Triplett.

Wynn's 89th birthday cake

Wynn’s 89th birthday cake

After dinner, Wynn opened the bakery box and got tears in his eyes when he saw the cake Triplett brought to surprise him.  He was delighted!  At the end of the evening, there were many hugs – and a mutual agreement to stay in touch.

 


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