Veterans Inspire!

Veterans Inspire!

by guest contributor Kirsten Fedewa
Photo credit: Miguel Leonardo

In the spirit of Independence Day, 2018, the Seventh Annual Tribute to America’s Veterans and those serving in the US Congress was held at the Capitol Hill Club on June 27th.  Former Pennsylvania Governor, US Congressman and first Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge was the Guest of Honor, flanked by a long list of veterans who are present or past members of Congress.

Tom Ridge

The sold-out crowd was greeted with a premier Bourbon tasting and hospitality, compliments of Beam Suntory, Wine Institute and the National Beer Wholesalers of America.

“Bourbon Ambassador”

That said, the official activities began with the Call to Order by Norm Bonnyman, Co-founder and COO of The Veterans Campaign, followed by the Presentation of the Colors featuring the Joint Forces Color Guard. The National Anthem, sung by world renowned tenor Anthony Kearns followed. The Pledge of Allegiance was led by Chris Lamy, Air Force veteran and Military Working Dog Handler, representing the Student Veterans Association, the largest student organization in the country with over 1.1 million members.

Joint Forces Color Guard, wide shot of Tribute audience. House Chaplain, Fr. Pat Conroy in foreground

Master of Ceremonies Major Garrett (CBS News) then introduced Father Pat Conroy, Chaplain of the US House of Representatives, for the invocation. His inspirational prayer was a call for blessings on all who have served in the military forces of our country, both in the past and in the present, especially in Congress. His prayer included the service dogs who have shown God’s blessings to our veterans in their need.


Congressmen Robert Livingston (former), Darrel Issa, Major Garrett (CBS News), Gov. Tom Ridge

Next, Major Garrett recognized the numerous sponsors of the evening’s celebration, consisting of a variety of organizations, including both veterans’ aid organizations as well as companies and public service institutions who support veterans’ causes. Event organizer, Kirsten A. Fedewa, also was recognized.

International Tenor Anthony Kearns, event organizer Kirsten Fedewa, former Virginia Governor James Gilmore

Under Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Memorial Services, the Honorable Randy Reeves, rose to assure the audience of the unwavering support of the current administration for veterans making the transition from active service to civilian life. He was followed by one of the stars of the evening, US Marine Corporal (retired) John Gerula, and his service dog, Oliver.

Major Garrett told the story of Corporal Gerula’s harrowing experiences in Iraq’s Operation Phantom Fury only to find himself facing an even greater foe in Post-Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury when he came home. Alone and in distress, his life began to disintegrate into drinking, domestic difficulties, and increasing isolation. He tried to get a service dog, but the wait of 18-24 months and the cost of $30,000 were beyond him. Then he discovered American Humane’s new “Shelter to Service” which rescues abandoned dogs from shelters (and eventual euthanizing) and trains them to become first class service dogs. American Humane began by rescuing horses in WWI and has become the oldest and largest animal rescue resource in the country serving the US military. In this program they save two lives – the dog’s and the veteran’s. American Humane paired John Gerula with Oliver, a one-year-old Mountain Cur.

US veteran and his service dog.  Photo credit: courtesy of American Humane

John then addressed the audience and explained how Oliver had saved his life. “I wouldn’t be here tonight,” he said, “if it weren’t for Oliver.” He was greeted with thunderous applause. Former 22-year member of the House of Representatives and Navy veteran Bob Livingston put into words the appreciation of the sacrifices and the outcome of Sergeant Gerula’s ordeal. As a proud supporter of American Humane, he also shared more information about their important role in the rehabilitation of countless veterans.

Governor Tom Ridge was then introduced. In addition to his many other achievements, it was also revealed that he is perhaps the only graduate of Harvard College who enlisted in the Marine Corps as a private.  In his spirited address, Governor Ridge highlighted the role of military service in preparing public servants in government by bringing their understanding of the primacy of the “mission” of their service, their ability to focus on the success of their mission in spite of all the distractions of politics and public life, and their realization of the seriousness of the decisions to be made by government officials. Having in many cases faced combat, they are not inclined to view politics and public policy as a “game”. He concluded by congratulating all the Members present and encouraging them to stay the course.

Co-founders of  “No One left Behind” – Matt Zeller and Janis Shinwari

Governor Ridge was followed by Matt Zeller and Janis Shinwari of  “No One Left Behind” Matt related his dramatic brush with death in Afghanistan as a combat officer. He was saved by an Afghan interpreter, Janis Shinwari, who is now his co-founder of the organization No One Left Behind. It is dedicated to saving the lives of the many loyal native interpreters whose contributions not only facilitated the success of American military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but who also saved countless American lives. Then, when the Americans left, these very interpreters were frequently left in mortal danger from the subsequent native forces. No One Left Behind facilitates the removal and re-settlement of these heroes to the United States. Their successes number in the thousands, but there are more needs every day as American forces shift priorities in the Middle East. 

Rep. Peter King

Major Garrett then introduced Congressman Peter King (R-NY), a member of the Homeland Security Committee, the Financial Services Committee, and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He also serves as Chairman of the Subcommittee of Counter Terrorism. Mr. King, a veteran of the Army’s Fighting 69t, who received an lifelong service award by Col. Jim Tierney of the same fighting unit (which gave Notre Dame its famous moniker), said a few words and then introduced the Congressmen in attendance. Serving as the Congressional moderator, Rep. King recognized Reps. Scott Perry (R-PA), Brian Wenstrup (R-OH), Steve King (R-IA), Darrell Issa (R-CA), and others who dropped by for the occasion.

Former Virginia Governor James Gilmore, himself a veteran, was asked to add his comments to the occasion and he spoke eloquently of the sacrifices and the meaning of public service, in the military and in government — a fitting summary of the program.

The final event of the evening was a brief concert by international tenor, Anthony Kearns. Kearns first appeared as the youngest member of the Irish Tenors, and with them set records for PBS Specials and record sales. He has subsequently enjoyed a flourishing solo career and moved to America, where he has starred in numerous benefits for American veterans’ causes. His performance was warmly received, especially his signature rendering of “O America” an inspirational song of patriotism, recently sung for the President, Vice President, and 100 bipartisan members of Congress, as the guest of Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI).

Cocktails were then served, as the inspired audience savored the rich and rare experiences of the evening.