Remembering, thanking veterans

For the last four years during the holidays, members of American Legion Post and Auxiliary No. 523 have honored veterans and active military in the area in a simple yet powerful way: by remembering them.

"Were it not for them, the world as we know it today would not exist," said auxiliary member Janice MacLeod. "Through their service and sacrifice we can celebrate the holidays in whatever manner we chose, if we chose to celebrate. With today's world being so hectic, it's easy to get wrapped up in ourselves and forget individuals or groups who need or deserve to be remembered or helped."

Each year, dozens of volunteers and members of the Harrisburg nonprofits help decorate, fill and hand-deliver gift bags. Each one is filled with everyday essentials and toiletries, personalized, handmade greeting cards and small gifts like hats and lap blankets. More than 120 first-graders and about 20 students in grades K-5 in the Learning Connections classes at Harrisburg Elementary helped decorate the bags and make cards this year.

Gift bags will be distributed to veterans at Carillon Assisted Living Center in Harrisburg, The Oaks at Town Center Nursing Home in Harrisburg, N.C. State Veterans Nursing Homes in Salisbury and the W.G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury.

"Without this effort, some veterans would probably just get necessary items from family members or by using their own funds," said MacLeod. "But they sure can't replace our gratitude and our joy from having the opportunity to thank them and to try to give back in some small way. The best part is definitely the joy I receive from the appreciation shown by the recipients for simply being remembered."

The post, formed in 2003, and the auxiliary united in 2005. As new members joined the auxiliary, the organization decided to celebrate by throwing a Christmas party for hospitalized veterans, which later developed into the gift-bag project.

The first year, organizers created 75 gift bags for aging veterans in the Harrisburg area and at the VA Medical Center in Salisbury. The following year, residents of the N.C. State Veterans Nursing Home were added. Today, the project provides 200 gift bags to area vets each year.

"This particular project is a special effort to give back to so many men and women who have already given so much to our country," said MacLeod. "Our veterans deserve to be honored and thanked for their service. But we want people to know that we serve our veterans and active military throughout the year, not just at holidays."

MacLeod helped organize the auxiliary unit in Harrisburg and also served as president of the unit. Today she is the secretary and in her second year as Division IV president, where she oversees 45 units, or about one-fifth of the group's state members. She also served three years as District 17 president, overseeing 14 units, and two years as field service chairman of the Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Committee.

The reactions from the veterans vary.

"Some are almost surprised when they hear that people in our community came together to remember them at the holidays," said MacLeod.

"They are touched emotionally when they hear that first-grade school children decorated the bags and made personal Christmas cards for them. Many immediately put on their new caps or use their lap blanket; their excitement is obvious.

"They express appreciation with smiles, hugs, handshakes and tears, not only for the contents of the bags but for the fact that they have been remembered and again thanked for serving our country."

One of MacLeod's favorite memories of delivering gifts bags to veterans over the years involved a veteran sitting in a wheelchair watching a flautist perform at a veterans' hospital. She watched him keep time, clap his hands and move his feet.

"I walked over to speak with him, and he took my hands and then, with great effort, he stood up so that we danced together without either of us moving our feet," said MacLeod.

"We both enjoyed our dance tremendously."