main story image for facebook sharing

History and Heritage

In the Company of Heroes

The door of our van wasn't even finished closing in the parking lot of the Armed Forces Retirement Home (AFRH) in Washington, D.C. before Frank Lawrence began speaking.

The New England native, and retired Air Force Master Sgt. (now well into his 80s), met our group with an energy and enthusiasm of someone half his age - it was all we could do to keep up with him when our tour of the facility began.

Frank, it seemed, knew everyone there.

We had come to the AFRH with one objective: meet the guests and listen to their stories.

The facility itself lives up to the reputation of the guests who call it home. Nestled atop a small hill in Northwest Washington, D.C. the home offers a postcard-perfect view of downtown - monuments and all. It's the perfect backdrop to sit and hear first-hand from those who have gone before what it was like to serve in the military.

We arrived just before lunch and wandered into the lobby adjacent to the cafeteria. The silent stares from those waiting there was enough to let us know that we were now in the company of heroes. They would never say as much - the heroes, they fiercely define, are the ones who didn't come back.

It's hard not to notice when you see a ball cap embroidered with "World War II Veteran" and a Bronze Star (in some cases, Silver). You know there is an amazing story there to hear. With a common humility that seems uncommon today, the soft-spoken answers seemed to revolve around "I was just doing what I was told." How on Earth do you thank someone like that?

Or retired Navy Chief Yeoman Helen Sadowski - still proudly wearing her Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) hat pin as a necklace. At a time when military service was less than welcoming to females in the ranks, Helen was a true pioneer.

Our group had interacted with a large and diverse group of veterans, but we easily reached the same conclusion: The sacrifices these folks made should never become reduced to a simple calendar notification. Some gave all their tomorrows so that we could enjoy ours. The lucky ones who made it back almost never seek the sort of attention they deserve. We owe them all.

"Thank you for letting us intrude like this, ma'am," I said to Helen as we prepared to leave. "Don't call me 'ma'am' dammit," she smirked.

The ride back was quiet. We all returned a little better for the visit. If you ever get the chance to talk with those who have served - take it.

Just the simple act of listening is sometimes the best way to really say "Thank You."