The 2016 Samsung American Legion Scholarship recipients deliver Operation Comfort Warrior gifts to veterans at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, D.C., June 6. Photo by Clay Lomneth/The American Legion

Legion scholars meet heroes who ‘gave way to our freedom’

Sydney Closs’ grandfather passed away when she was young, leaving her without an opportunity to hear about his service in the Korean War and thank him for making her eligible to receive the Samsung American Legion Scholarship. But Closs, alongside the other nine 2016 scholarship recipients being honored in Washington, D.C. this week, was given that lost opportunity on June 6 during a visit to the Armed Forces Retirement Home where she heard firsthand accounts of military stories from veterans and thanked them for their service.

“I spoke with a 94-year-old Korean War veteran and it was very special to me to meet someone who experienced the war since I didn’t get to meet my grandfather and speak to him about his service. I felt like it was something I would have liked to been able to hear from my grandfather, so I’m thankful I was able to experience it here,” said Closs of Middletown, N.J., who will be attending Yale University this fall. “Once I was awarded (the Samsung American Legion Scholarship) my family was beyond thrilled and we began looking at my grandfather’s Navy pictures and his paperwork. This scholarship has been a real honor to me.”

As the scholars delivered Operation Comfort Warrior gift bags filled with toiletries and games to several residents at the retirement home and struck up conversations, they were reminded of who was in their presence – “the heroes of America, our warriors who fought the battles that gave way to our freedom,” said Robert Milton Webb, resident advocate at the Armed Forces Retirement Home. “These fine people sitting right here, nowhere in your history books in high school or college will tell you that in your presence you have a person that was torpedoed twice (during World War II) and who is also the oldest living recipient of a heart transplant; you won’t hear stories about people who fought in the Chosen Reservoir. Learn something about them and how they served our wonderful country.”

Jayelen Knowles of Moab, Utah, will be attending the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., this fall and during her visit with the veterans she met a woman who was a Navy yeoman. “She said it was one of the best times of her life,” Knowles said. “It was really neat to hear their backstories and get the perspective of that generation. And it was nice to meet those who helped support us and our freedom.”

Committee on Youth Education Chairman Mike Bredeck shared with the residents about the history of the scholarship, which Samsung (a South Korean-based company) endowed $5 million to The American Legion in 1996 in recognition of America’s support during the war.

“In appreciation for what you did for them, Samsung gave back to us. And with the $5 million they’re giving back to you – the money has made an impact in these scholarship recipients lives,” Bredeck said. “I want to impress upon you that the impact came a long time ago in the early 50s by your efforts in saving South Korea. It was your service that gives (the scholars) their freedom today.”

The residents also received words of gratitude from Samsung.

“Samsung thanks you for your service and thanks The American Legion for this great program,” said John Hedrick, chief of staff for Samsung in Ridgefield Park, N.J. “Samsung has a very long and proud association with The American Legion, and it’s truly an honor to be among these scholars who will lead the next generation of our country.”

While the scholars enjoyed honoring the veterans, the appreciation was reciprocated. “Having these young kids come visit (the veterans) lifts their spirits,” said Sheldon Shorthouse, a Gulf War veteran who resides at the home and is the resident advisory committee chairman. “And once the kids started mingling with the residents you could see their eyes light up, spirits lift … it’s just great for them.”

The scholars continued to show their appreciation for America’s war heroes by touring the National Mall, which included a visit to the National World War II Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial. This recognition trip marked the first time for Matthew LaMirande to visit D.C. and see the memorial that honored his grandfather’s service in the Korean War. But for him, all the war memorials were “really impactful.”

“This trip has taught me a lot about those who have sacrificed and served their country,” said LaMirande of Dresser, Wis., who will be attending Yale University this fall. “I’m thankful to The American Legion and Samsung because this scholarship has meant quite a bit to me, and this (trip) has been a big part of it, which has been absolutely amazing.”