"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
I must have said the pledge of allegiance unblinkingly a thousand times as an elementary and high school student, but today, standing amongst veterans that fought in nine different wars from the 1940’s to today, it was as though I was hearing it for the first time. There I was, standing with over one hundred veterans who served our country as we watched the Elks Lodge #1240 Troop walk in the military flags, where men saluted and women covered their hearts as we said the Pledge of Allegiance in perfect unison.
This moment was designed specifically for these veterans to congregate for a luncheon at the Elks Lodge this Veterans Day weekend with the purpose of getting to know one another, sharing stories about their military experience, and connecting as service men and women. It was the idea of one woman, Mary Stefani Camper, and the hard work of many, to bring this to life for their enjoyment and most of all, to honor them.
It all began with the small-town connection for which Merced is so well-known. Mary Stefani Camper, a local realtor, was showing a house and waiting for her clients to arrive. While she was waiting, she saw that the next door neighbor was outside and she decided to introduce herself. That neighbor, George Praither, asked if she was related to Larry Stefani (he’s her uncle). George went on to tell her that he and Larry, who both grew up together in Merced, were in Vietnam at the same time. In 1966, George was walking down a street in Qui Nhon when he and another American saluted each other as they crossed paths. He quickly did a double take and yelled, “Larry!,” realizing that he had just walked past a childhood friend. As he recalled this memory to Mary, he shared that he and Larry hadn’t really seen each other since that moment. She was shocked that two men who grew up together, bumped into each other in a war thousands of miles away, and moved back to the same town didn’t really see each other. Her follow up question to him was simple, “Don’t veterans have reunions and get together?’” Well, the answer was “no.” It was then and there that she decided she would create a gathering so that local veterans would have an opportunity to meet.
To set things in motion, Mary talked to Rick Seymour, who is actively involved in working on events for the community. They put together a small planning committee that included Mark Leigh, Martha & Jack Kelly, and Bill Savage. Rick then engaged Elks Lodge #1240, which took this event to the next level. As soon as the Elks heard about the idea, they were on board to make sure it happened. Mary shared that “The Elks are the ones that got behind it. If you were to see all the people that came out today, the people that were cooking, setting up, it’s remarkable. This wouldn’t have happened without their support.” At least thirty or so volunteers came out early Sunday morning to cook and set up the lodge for veterans.
The Elks #1240 Boy Scout Troop welcomed the veterans and their guests as they walked in through a tunnel of flags, and each troop member shook the hands of those entering. The program of the day was centered around providing these veterans an opportunity to socialize with one another over lunch. However, there was much pomp and circumstance that made the the afternoon so special. ‘Thank You’ letters, colored and written by members of Mrs. Roman’s 1st grade class at Shaffer elementary school, were sprinkled across the tables for veterans to read. One could hear incredible stories of the past being shared across the dining hall. Jack Kelly, a member of the Elks and a Vietnam veteran, led a roll call to honor those in attendance. The roll call shed light on the fact that our Merced military members have served us in wars all over the world: WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Gulf Wars, Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Steve Carrigan, Merced City Manager, came by to honor the veterans and to share stories of his own father’s military experience; the senior Carrigan was a Colonel in the Air Force for thirty years, and was a POW in Vietnam for 5½ years. The audience was captivated as he regaled fascinating stories about his father’s experience in the military. He shared a touching thought about his father and veterans in general. “I’ve been telling stories about my dad for 50 years, at and at the end of every story I’d always say he’s just my dad, my teacher, my guide through life and I never thought that was really appropriate. One night I decided that I was going to put my thoughts into one sentence to describe my dad.” This is the heartwarming sentence that he came up with: “My dad’s a regular, ordinary guy, but he did something extraordinary. Then he spent the rest of his life trying to be ordinary.” “I didn’t just describe my dad, I described most, if not all veterans, ordinary men and women, who did extraordinary things for their country, and then they came home and spent the rest of their lives trying to be ordinary. And I’m going to tell you what I told my dad, ‘stop trying to be ordinary, because you’re not ordinary, you’re extraordinary, you’re veterans.”
Following Steve’s moving remarks, Jack Kelly called the in the #1240 Troops to march the flags of each military branch into the dining hall. The roomful of grateful and proud Americans then recited the Pledge of Allegiance which wrapped up a perfectly patriotic afternoon.
For an event that was born out of a front yard conversation, it was remarkably successful, and proves how powerful a conversation, an idea, and community can be when people come together. As I walked through the crowds and jumped in and out of conversations, it was clear that this group of veterans wanted to see this one-time event become an annual tradition. For those of us who haven’t served in a war, we may not be able to swap service stories, but it gives us the opportunity to get to know and listen to truly special people. It’s safe to say that many of us walked away with a new or renewed appreciation for our veterans, their families, and our country. There’s power in people from all walks of life coming together, indivisible, to bond over something as extraordinary as serving and protecting our nation’s freedoms.