Celebrating those who served

Donelle Pardee Whiting
Robert Hett of Washington gets ready to raise the Marine Corps flag to the sound of taps Sunday as part of a Veterans Day celebration that started at Deiters Funeral Home and continued at the Veterans Memorial in Washington Park.

Despite Sunday’s cold and blustery weather, several retired military members ventured out for Washington’s annual Veterans Day celebration.

The afternoon began at Deiter’s Funeral Home in Washington, where Mayor Gary Manier thanked all of Washington’s veterans.

Tuesday was the 90th anniversary for Armistice Day, which was changed in 1954 to Veterans Day to include all veterans.

“Today,” Manier said, “Veterans Day honors all great veterans in our great nation.”

After singing the national anthem, Operation Santa organizer Pattie Smith spoke about how, when her son was serving overseas during Christmas, she could not think about what she wanted.

Instead, she thought about soldiers who were away from their families during the holidays.

Smith said she had no prior military experience until both her sons joined the Marines within six months of each other.

“I just remained kind of oblivious of that sector of our society,” she said. “But I got a crash course. We ended up going through three deployments within two years between the two boys.”

Smith said she began a quest to research how to become the best and most supportive marine mom there was.

“It happened on one Christmas when my first son was deployed,” Smith said, adding, “It was just awful. It was terrible having my boy, and then, eventually, two boys, at war.”

Smith said she would get sick to her stomach when people asked her what she wanted for Christmas.

She added she could only think about how she wanted her boys to come home alive and in one piece.

At that time, she came up with the idea of giving Christmas to one son’s platoon of 40 marines instead of receiving.

After sharing her goal with others, enough items came in for 200 soldiers. The next year, Smith said, enough came in for more than 10,000, and the following year more than 23,000.

Smith said Operation Santa recently completed more than 30,000 homemade stuffed stockings to be sent to deployed troops,

Operation Santa is now one of the largest Christmas drives for the troops in the nation.

However, Smith said she does not take credit for the success of the organization.

“It has been a tremendous journey. It has been the most fearful/purposeful chapter in my life,” Smith said, “and I owe it all to you veterans.”

With tears in her eyes, Smith told the assembled veterans that she would spend the rest of her life repaying the debt she could never repay.

Smith went on to thank all veterans for the freedom that she and every other citizen have because of their efforts and sacrifices.

The assembled veterans and their families also heard from James DeLoatche, a Peoria Vietnam War veteran and Purple Heart recipient.

DeLoatche said he could not begin to express how honored he was to share the Veterans Day observance in Washington.

He added he was moved by the tremendous support Washingtonians have for the community.

“It is always good coming to Washington,” DeLoatche said. “This is such a beautiful city. It is always so clean.”

He commended Smith on her efforts with Operation Santa.

DeLoatche added he could remember when he was serving in Vietnam how he and his fellow soldiers appreciated when packages would arrive.

It is a blessing to have those in the community who work so hard to keep this effort alive, DeLoatche said.

“The veterans we so graciously honor here today served an average of two to four years in combat,” DeLoatche said, “Yet, the impact they made on history will be echoed down through the ages.”

The sacrifices they made, giving their lives, will always be remembered and always be revered, he added.

Following DeLoatche, and the presentation of presidential certificates for those Washington veterans who died in the past year, the assembled veterans drove in a parade of cars to the Veterans Memorial in Washington Park.

The Vietnam-era memorial with an AH1 Cobra helicopter at the center was erected six years ago as an Eagle Scout project.

Eric Ingram, 20, said after his Eagle project was completed, said he wanted to do something to remember all the men and women who served in the armed forces.

“Let’s not forget what the young men and women do for us in the name of freedom,” DeLoatche said.