La PORTE — A box of Girl Scout cookies. A foam beer koozie. A fluffy pillow, embroidered with the Stars and Stripes.
While simple items to most, to a group of La Porte County veterans gathered at Haverstock Funeral Home on Saturday, these gifts — along with the warm hugs and handshakes from those handing them out — meant the world.
The La Porte business honored nearly a dozen local former military personnel during its second annual Veteran Honor Program that afternoon. Funeral home staff, joined by representatives from several local organizations devoted to veteran outreach, recognized the group of warriors for their service to their nation during the special ceremony.
The program recognized the following veterans:
• Billy Warner
• David Voltz
• Jeffery Jensen
• David Biggs
• Wayne Korbal
• Don Tolmen
• Lewis Juday
• Larry Steinbeck
• Ron Hyer
• Tony Hebb
• Gary Searing
The staff called each of the vets to the front of the room during the program to shower them with gifts, including:
• A commemorative coin and bag from Haverstock
• Boxes of Girl Scout cookies, through Rolling Prairie's Cookies for Soldiers program
• A beer koozie from Wanatah Modern Woodmen of America's Kurtis Iseminger
• A handmade patriotic pillow made by Cameron and Mary Moore, of Auburn, Indiana
"Anything that makes them feel special for the day," said Rhonda Graves, a Haverstock Funeral Home employee who organized Saturday's ceremony.
As the vets made their way through the room, Graves and other representatives personally thanked each of them for their sacrifice, some with friendly handshakes and others with a loving embrace.
Following the presentation, Carrie Carlson, a violinist and orchestra instructor at Portage High School, played a song titled "Ashokan Farewell," followed by a rendition "Taps." Her performance roused many of the veterans sitting in the chapel pews to tears as they solemnly closed eyes while the soft melody reverberated through the chamber.
State Rep. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie, was among those honoring the veterans — who spanned across various branches of the military and wars — Saturday. The Rolling Prairie man, who also attended last year's inaugural ceremony, said he was honored to have a chance to speak the group of veterans, mentioning his "hair is standing up on his arms."
While each of the veterans participating in Saturday's ceremony may have come from different walks of life and served in various conflicts, each share one thing in common — their sense of heroism, Pressel said.
"You all put everything on the line for your friends, families, God and country," the state representative said. "You risked your own lives for the lives of those you never met, so [the] freedom and comforts we've grown accustomed to can endure for the generations to come.
"You are true American heroes, and for your brave and selfless service to this country, we are forever grateful."
Pressel gave the former servicemen his cell phone number and encouraged them to reach out to him if ever needed assistance securing federal veterans' benefits.
Recognizing veterans while connecting them with community members there to support them is one of the main reasons Graves came to her bosses at Haverstock Funeral Home with the idea for the Veteran Honor Program last year, she said.
Graves and her 16-year-old daughter, Emily, have been heavily involved in outreach to current and former military personnel for the past decade.
When Emily was 6, she decided to use her own money to send Girl Scout cookies to those serving overseas, her mother said. Since then, she and her mother's nonprofit, Cookies For Soldiers Inc., has donated boxes of the beloved treats to active and former servicemen and women every year since, the elder Graves said.
Expanding the organization's veteran outreach through Graves' job at Haverstock felt like a natural avenue to take, she said.
Fortunately, her superiors immediately got on board with the idea, she said.
The ceremony is another way the funeral home devotes itself to local veterans and their families, said Funeral Director Danny Cracknell. The business handles a large number of services for deceased military personnel every year, so it's nice for the staff to get a chance to honor those who are still alive as well, he added.
"We feel like veterans are not as recognized as much as they should be," Cracknell said. "It's a good thing [for us] to do."
These types of ceremonies are especially meaningful to Vietnam War veterans, who famously received a hostile welcome upon their return from the controversial conflict more than 40 years ago, Graves said.
"We're giving them the welcome home they should have gotten," Graves said. "Anytime you give them a positive experience, you help chip away at the negative ones."