by Robert Gardner
Nearly 100 people came out to VFW Post 32 in Lansdale on April 6 to join Montgomery County Community College’s Student Veterans Organization (SVO) for its inaugural Appreciation Dinner. Friends, family and former members of the armed forces came out to show unanimous support for those who have sacrificed so much for the United States. A brief ceremony followed a full complement of guest speakers and a catered dinner.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 32 received the first Appreciation Award for providing a safe place for all vets to gather with others with whom they share a unique bond. Commander Frank DeSimone accepted the second award, presented to the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Chapter 25 of Collegeville.
Members of Veterans Club took the opportunity to thank one of their own, recognizing club president Brent Worthington with an award that reads, “In appreciation for all your time and dedication to the Veterans Club. Thank you for all the hard work.” A humble Worthington accepted the plaque while redirecting praise to his fellow veterans.
“Wow, I wasn’t expecting this.” Turning to the club, he asked, “How did you guys keep this a secret from me?” Amid laughter, he added, “I couldn’t do this without your help.”
Worthington returned to the stage to present the final award of the night to a civilian—club advisor, Dr. Ann Marie Donohue. An associate professor of psychology, Dr. Donohue rose the stairs to the stage with her right hand covering her heart; she took the clear, glass STAR Award and held it so she could read the inscription before speaking.
Fighting back tears, Dr. Donohue talked of bravery. “The vets at Montco did what I was told they would never do: They took the risk of talking to a civilian.”
“Working with the veterans is one of the greatest privileges of my life,” she added. “It was never easy, but I made a promise to myself and to these men [and women] that I will do whatever it takes to help them get back to their lives.”
“This award,” she concluded, “tells me that I kept my promise. I kept my promise.”
Dr. Donohue became interested in working with student-veterans in 2004-2005 after having a young man in her class who had served in Iraq. Recognizing his symptoms, she asked a simple question which revealed a complex answer.
“What do people like me need to know?” she asked of his experiences.
“He told me that people said ‘don’t think about it.’ Then he asked me, ‘How can I not think about it?’ and that’s when I realized that most of us, myself included, are oblivious to the horrors of war.”
An informal Veterans Club emerged from the conversations the two had.
Beyond the presentation of awards, the evening also served to bring together veterans of several wars. For the older servicemen, it allowed them to identify the future of organizations such and the VFW, DAV, and others.
“The turnout was great,” said Worthington. “We did not anticipate almost one hundred people to show up. The dinner was a great success. Some of our current veterans are getting the help they need and faster, because of the personal relationships we now have with these organizations.”
Senior Vice Commander of Post 32 Ivan Eitreimer described the decision to host the dinner as a no-brainer.
“Brent came to us, we talked about it and said Hell, yeah!” he said. “The more veterans we get together, the better.” Eitreimer, who served in Vietnam, spoke of this latest generation of veterans in terms of what it represents to the VFW. “We want the young guys because we’re all getting old. We want young blood to carry [the post] forward.”
Worthington mirrored Eitreimer’s statement. “For most of us, and I cannot speak for all, but for most it was an excellent opportunity to give thanks to the prior-generation veterans. They did not and have not received the thanks or gratitude we have [from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom]. The relationships we started because of this dinner,” he continued, “are growing tighter.”
Army veteran Chris Crouthamel, who fought in Iraq in 2003 and 2005, is in his first semester at Montgomery County Community College. The engineering major expressed his appreciation for the dinner’s turnout and offered a glimpse at what’s to come for Veterans Club.
“It means a lot to me for everyone to come out and support us like this,” the club treasurer said. “It’s going to be even better next year.”
Current MCCC student and former club president John O’Hara and his wife Dawn, both service vets, invested their time and talents into making sure the dinner guests enjoyed their meal. The couple recently started a catering business after Dawn graduated from culinary school; they prepared and provided all of the food free of charge.
Accounting student Fred Walczak was deployed to Iraq in 2003. He recalled step-by-step his experience as being one of hurry-up-and-wait.
“After we got to Kuwait, it was three weeks until we knew what we were doing. Six months in, we were told we were going home in 30 days. Fifteen days later, we were extended for 90 more days. Then we entered Fallujah.”
“Thirteen months later,” he said, “we were at Ft. Bragg watching a PowerPoint presentation on the benefits of being a war vet. The last thing we wanted to do was watch a PowerPoint presentation.”
According to Walczak, many returning veterans have no idea what they’re entitled to. He now dedicates his time to a staffing firm which helps veterans identify and receive the benefits they earned through service. He can be found in the Veteran Career Headquarters at Central Campus.
“Each vet has a unique talent. We want to connect vets with potential employers,” he said.
Another highlight of the evening came when MCCC student and veteran Greg Meinhardt took the stage as auctioneer to raise funds for Veterans Club. Even though the crowd laughed as he chanted, they took the bidding seriously. The big-ticket item was a deck of cards from Operation Iraqi Freedom, which fetched the sum of $200!
While the night consisted of lighter moments such as this, the overall tone was one of brotherhood. Many of the veterans echoed the same sentiment: The formation and maintenance of places like the VFW, agencies like DAV, and groups like MCCC’s Student Veterans Organization are imperative. For the brave men and women who go to distant lands and fight—who do their jobs day-in and day-out, not knowing if or when they’ll go home—being accepted and understood seems a far-off proposition. Nights like April 6, events like the Veterans Appreciation dinner, let them know they are not alone.
“We have a responsibility to understand some of what they went through for us,” said Donohue. “Events like this, they’re not just jargon. It’s not image management. It’s real.”
Student veterans, led by club president Brett Worthington, speak at the dinner. Photo by Jessica Lowenstein