Following a sneak-peek at last weekend's dinner-and-dance fundraiser, the Invest in America's Veterans Foundation is planning to mark the anniversary of D-Day today with a look at a new exhibit and open house at the Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library.
On June 6, the 70th anniversary of the day when allied forces invaded Normandy, France, to begin the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi Germany, the museum will hold an open house with free hot dogs and hamburgers D-Day for everybody. Visitors will be among the first to view the D-Day display that was unveiled on the "Night at the Museum" fundraiser held May 31.
The museum on Leonard Street will open at 9 a.m. A short ceremony to introduce the display will take place at 11:30 a.m.
Jack Anderson, a World War II D-Day paratrooper with the 101st Airborne who received three Purple Hearts during his service, will be among the speakers.
Visitors may also be privileged to meet former Army Private William Lock, who was stationed in Liverpool, England, when the allied invasion of Normandy was planned and executed.
Then an 18-year-old tuba player from Newport, KY, Lock was in the 360th Engineers and played in the band for special military ceremonies and officers' dances. Two days before the invasion, when he saw "all the guys with ammunition bandoliers" being trucked into Southampton, he thought, "Oh my God. There but for the grace of God go I." Thirty days later, he and the rest of his unit were convoyed into France to act as guards for the engineers.
"Pfc." Lock, incidentally, is still a tuba player, now with the Blue Dirt Dixieland Jazz Band, which played last Saturday for 75 uniformed veterans and their spouses, all of whom enjoyed dinner and dancing to the band's jazzy sound.
According to its founder, president, and chairman of the board, Ralph Santillo, the Veterans' Foundation is about "veterans helping veterans." The foundation began simply. "Five or six years ago," Santillo and his friend, Stanley Weinberg, a WWII submarine navigator, started talking about providing a place where veterans could get together to share their wartime experiences. Weinberg thought he might help the young men coming out of the Gulf Wars by relating his own experience of adjusting to civilian life post WWII. He wanted to show them that, "A better life is ahead, if you can just hang in there."
A few veterans began to meet monthly and then weekly to discuss education, job and business opportunities. As the numbers of vets coming to these meetings grew, Santillo and Weinberg realized they needed a place, open every day, where veterans could come to help and to get help from other veterans. They leased a 1300-square-foot space in Cape Coral and equipped it with a computer and a copier. The small store filled rapidly with the uniforms and other memorabilia that the vets brought in to share with one another.
"We had so much coming in it was hanging from the ceiling. It got to be where you had to duck when you walked in. I looked around one day and thought, where'd all this stuff come from? Who's it belong to? We really have to get serious. These guys are bringing in precious items and artifacts. We need to start thinking about preserving them. So we started the museum."
Unfortunately, Weinberg, the foundation's first president, passed away before the Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library opened, in September of 2012, in the former Sweetbay grocery on Leonard Street in Cape Coral.
Today, this 34,000-square-foot museum houses an estimated one million dollars worth of military artifacts and personal memorabilia from the American Revolution to the current conflicts in the Middle East. Some 600 visitors a week tour the huge facility. The first words Santillo usually hears from first-time visitors is, "Wow. We never knew you had this much."
The museum also houses a library, a gift shop, a "mess" where veterans receive free meals, and a conference room where four certified counselors are available daily to provide veterans with VA benefits, drug and alcohol and education counseling, as well as with help in finding jobs and housing. Food, clothing, even furniture and transportation are provided to veterans in need.
Both veteran and civilian volunteers at the museum put in "a thousand hours a week for no pay. Without them we'd be nowhere," said Santillo. A Korean War veteran, former Marine sergeant George Collum, is one of them. Collum was 18 in 1950 when he joined the Marines and went to Korea. What was Korea like?
"Cold," Collum grinned. In the trenches along the 38th parallel, it was minus 30 degrees in the winter.
Collum described the summer of '52 "when the outpost wars started up," as "nasty, bloody. But the thing was, when I came back home, I was walking down the street and I saw a kid I knew and he said, 'George, how are ya? Haven't seen you for a while' and I said I've been in Korea for a year and he said, 'Didn't even know you were gone.' That was the typical response of a lot of people. It was the forgotten war, you know.
"But not too long ago, I met a second generation Korean engineer at work and I mentioned I'd served in Korea and he said, 'Thank you, thank, you, thank you,' and 3 or 4 weeks later I got a letter from his father, written in Korean, saying that they are forever thankful that we went over there, saying that if we hadn't come over, they'd be dead. So you don't feel bad that you went over there
"Here at the foundation," Collum said, "we (veterans) all talk same language. It's like we're back in the barracks together, and talking about our experiences has helped. It's been a major turning point for one especially who, until now, has never been able to talk about it."
The Invest in America's Veterans Foundation is a non-profit organization funded entirely by your donations and memberships. For more information about the foundation and about the military museum & library at 4820 Leonard Street, Cape Coral, please visit www.veterans-foundation.org or call 239-541-8704.