Honor, healing, and hope.
One veteran organization has made that their mission, but they need support to carry it out, which is why Forever Young Senior Veterans in Alabama will be the featured charity recipient for the Armed Forces Celebration Week Biergarten, to be held June 27 from 4:30 to 7:30 at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. Admission is free; German food and beverage will be available for purchase.
Forever Young is a wish granting organization for veterans 65 and older who were active duty during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Some wishes are simple, such as throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game, flying in the WWII airplane that they flew in during their service or even jumping out of an airplane to redo a jump gone wrong during the war. Some wishes include traveling back to the places they fought, and through their Trips of Honor, many of them find the peace that has eluded them – sometimes for decades.
“A lot of these veterans are still suffering from PTSD and that is something that people do not understand, because they truly are the greatest generation and they have suffered silently for all of these years,” Chris Batte, coordinator for the Alabama extension of Forever Young Senior Veterans, said. “They were told to go home, rebuild the nation and take care of their families, and that is what they did. … A lot of them still have nightmares. We have seen on these trips; the nightmares go away. Because when you go back to a place in your nightmares that brings you nothing but pain and you remember it in chaos and turmoil, and you see it in peace, you see the people who are descendants of people you helped liberate and they come kiss your hand – it brings peace to them.”
The logistics of planning these trips can be extensive, Batte said, and sometimes “it gets really dicey” as many of the veterans do not possess passports. With their advanced ages, sometimes simply finding their birth certificate is a challenge. Every veteran has to have medical approval to travel and each trip always includes a doctor and nurse. While there is no cost for the veteran, family or caregivers traveling with the veteran are responsible for their own costs. In addition, if the veteran does not bring a companion or caregiver, Forever Young will provide a volunteer companion. Batte said that often the volunteer is a younger veteran and for them, having the opportunity to serve a fellow veteran is meaningful and healing as well.
Another challenge is raising enough money to fund the trips and with the older veterans, time is of the essence. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, less than 500,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are still alive and according to Forever Young, they are dying at a rate of 348 per day. Batte said that it is heartbreaking to have to turn down veterans who want to go because they do not have available funds.
“We plan a trip and we start fundraising,” Batte said. “Then we spend that money and we are back to zero. Then we start planning another trip and we start fundraising. We don’t have a huge overhead.”
In fact, the Alabama group is an all-volunteer organization, including founder Diane Hight, and runs with only one employee located in Tennessee.
In addition to emotional healing, just the promise of going back to the battlefields to pay their respect is enough to bring them physical healing, Batte said. She spoke of a veteran who planned to be a part of a trip to Pearl Harbor but was diagnosed three times with pneumonia in the months leading up to departure.
“He said, ‘I have made up mind, I am going on this trip.’ And he made it,” Batte said. “We see this all of the time. Sometimes these men pull through because they have a trip to look forward to. It keeps them going.”
Along with the Biergarten, Forever Young’s other fundraiser this summer is their Honor Prom, to be held July 27 at 5:30 p.m. in Madison’s Insanity Entertainment Complex. The attire is cocktail or prom, and the event will include dinner, dancing and a silent auction. To purchase tickets, visit www.honorprom.com. Many of the veterans who have attended the Trips of Honor will be attending the prom and Batte invites anyone interested in supporting Forever Young to register.
Funds from the Biergarten and Honor Prom will benefit the Alabama extension and its upcoming trips. Earlier in June, Forever Young took 14 veterans to France for the anniversary of D-Day and will travel to Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany in September. Batte said that Hight hopes to plan a trip to Korea in 2020.
As monumental as the Trips of Honor can be in a veteran’s life, the friendships formed remain long after they return home.
“We are a family,” Batte said. “When someone gets sick, we have a group who makes food for them. We have a group who sends cards. Every veteran is assigned a volunteer to keep track of them and call them, take care of them and let us know if anything is going on with them. Those relationships grow very deep.”
To learn more or contribute to Forever Young’s mission, visit their website at foreveryoungvets.org. To become involved, contact Batte at 931-409-3812 or visit the Alabama extension page at www.foreveryoungvets.org/alabama. The group also has an active Facebook group which can be found at www.facebook.com/ForeverYoungVetsAlabama/.