WHY REUNIONS MATTER
by Jerri Donohue
As a volunteer for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project (VHP), I have attended numerous reunions of WW II vets. Despite their different histories and customs, I have repeatedly observed that these events share something in common: reunions are good for those who attend.
Because of this, at the end of each VHP interview, I now ask the veteran if he/she participates in reunions. If the answer is “no,” I ask why not. Here are some of the responses I get, and my rebuttal to them:
I’m too old to travel. Oh, yeah? I have interviewed ten men aged 90 or older at reunions. Four of those were attending their first reunion ever! Another fellow was two weeks shy of his 95th birthday. And two were presidents of their organizations– Demetri Paris, then 93 years old (Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge) and 91-year old Frank Towers (30th Infantry Division Veterans of WW II). Many (most?) veterans find it easier to travel to reunions with family members. Draft a younger relative to come with you. He/she can do the driving or fetch luggage from the airport carousel and do any necessary leg work. One interviewee was an 89-year old ex- POW attending his first reunion—his college student granddaughter brought him to it. Another first-timer was 91 and confined to a wheelchair— his niece’s husband accompanied “Uncle Louie.” Reunions are good for adult kids of veterans, too. Sometimes they learn important pieces of their father’s history when they listen to him speak with other vets. And they get to mingle with a crowd of exceptionally nice baby boomers.
I won’t know anybody there. Yes, that can be tough. But you probably will know somebody within about a half hour of your arrival. The people hosting the reunion want you to be there and they want you to have a good time. And it doesn’t matter that you didn’t know the other men during the war. They look forward to meeting you because you’re all members of the same endangered species. If you come to an AFEES reunion, you will be with other evaders. No wife, child or friend, no matter how loving, has experienced war as you have. But other evaders have lived it and they understand you in a way nobody else can.
It’s too expensive. It’s a shame to realize some veterans pass on reunions because of finances. Would your kids chip in to help? Please be honest with them. They may be searching for suitable Father’s Day, birthday and holiday gifts. You probably already have all the shirts, baseball caps and Benny Goodman CDs you’ll ever need. (Incidentally, I did not come up with this suggestion on my own—it worked for one of those 90-year old vets mentioned above.)
It will awaken sad memories. That happens at any reunion. An AFEES reunion, however, celebrates the best in human nature because it emphasizes the courage and kindness of helpers who kept evaders out of enemy hands. In addition, you will swap stories and share laughs with other evaders in the hospitality suite. Of course you will think of comrades who are gone. But the reunion also gives you the opportunity to remember them in a meaningful way during a beautiful memorial service.
In September 2009, I witnessed an incident that illustrates the impact of reunions on individuals. It occurred during a gathering of former inmates of Bergen Belsen concentration camp and G.I.s who liberated them from a train the Nazis abandoned in Germany. Although he had long been active in his VFW post, one veteran was attending a reunion for the first time. After the usual speeches at the final banquet, this taciturn man approached the podium. In a voice choked with emotion, he said, “Nobody asked me to speak. But I just wanted the guys to know that being here with them has made this one of the happiest weeks of my life.”
Please come to Salt Lake City!
You’ll be glad you did!