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Dance with the Stars and Stripes honors, fundraises for local veterans

MADISON — Members of the community convened last month to dance the night away with local veterans and support their upcoming trip at a special Dance with the Stars and Stripes event at Redstone Harley-Davidson.

The event, hosted by Forever Young Senior Veterans, served as a fun opportunity for civilians to honor and get to know their local heroes over dinner and dancing. Many even dressed up for the occasion in World War II-era clothing, and Huntsville’s In the Mood band provided the jazz and swing tunes to help guests take a step back in time. Proceeds from the event, which also included a silent auction, will help the organization send a few local veterans on a trip to Normandy, France.

One of these veterans is Sherwin Callander, who fought in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

Callander was part of several historic moments in the war, including being at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked and landing on Utah Beach in Normandy on D-Day.

Thanks to the efforts of FYSV, Callander will soon be able to revisit that place at no cost to him or his family. He said he is looking forward to seeing how much the place has changed since his last visit.

Callander’s granddaughter, Elaine Oakes, spent “countless hours” with FYSV Alabama coordinator Chris Batté organizing and preparing for Dance with the Stars and Stripes.

“Elaine is my partner in crime,” Batté said. “Without Elaine’s countless hours, this night would not be possible.”

Oakes and Batté are volunteers for FYSV, so those countless hours put into planning and executing events like Dance with the Stars and Stripes are done out of a love and desire for veterans. Since taking just one veteran on a trip like the upcoming Normandy one can cost upwards of $6,000, the team sought extra funds from sponsorships and the silent auction. Guests were also given the opportunity to make additional donations at the event.

One of the popular silent auction items was a patriotic painting by Karen McCutchen. What made the painting even more special were the dozens of signatures from veterans who attended the event that night. The second-highest bidder loved the painting so much that he offered to match the winning bid if McCutchen would create another one of her masterpieces and got more veteran signatures on it.

The Patriot Guard Riders were present to welcome veterans as they entered. Batté said they also often provide support and assistance when they go on trips, and they are there to send the veterans off and welcome them home.

As guests enjoyed a barbecue buffet for dinner, the founder of FYSV shared her story on how she got the organization started.

Diane Hight established Forever Young Senior Veterans 12 years ago in Memphis, Tennessee. Over the years, she has come to be known affectionately as “The Little General.”

“She comes by that title honestly,” Batté said.

Hight traveled down to Alabama for the event, and several Memphis-area veterans and their families made the trip as well.

According to Hight, the organization began after a desire to grant a few individual wishes for veterans exploded into something bigger than she ever imagined.

“I was thinking, these will be easy—just to grant wishes,” Hight said. “I never dreamed that we would take veterans on trips.”

What began with one veteran’s wish to visit the World War II Memorial quickly spread and attracted the attention of about eight more veterans. Things didn’t stop there, though. An article published about the upcoming trip in a Memphis newspaper garnered even more attention, and before she knew it, Hight had 75 names on her list for that first trip to Washington, D.C.

“Oh my goodness, I didn’t even know how I was going to do it,” Hight recalled. “ … In my mind, this was a one-time thing. Well, guess what? We got home and we had 50 more vets, and we started raising money like crazy. We took them, and we had about 50 more … we couldn’t keep up with it.”

Hight’s tenacity and refusal to rule out what seemed impossible has led FYSV to what it is today. Since its inception, the organization has honored more than 2,000 veterans and taken them on more than 40 trips in eight countries.

Callander met Hight by chance in Montgomery and invited him to come on their upcoming trip to Pearl Harbor. After some consideration, Callander determined to go.

“We went back to Pearl Harbor, and that was the first trip I made with them,” he said. “I’ve been on every trip since. I love it.”

Naturally, people in other states began to catch wind of the work that Hight and FYSV were doing and wanted to find out how they could establish their own local chapter. Out of all the interested parties, only one has pulled through the pressure of fundraising efforts: Alabama. The one who started this local effort is Batté.

Batté said Hight is “truly anointed” in loving and working with veterans. After she went on a trip with Callander, she knew she wanted to carry on the work.

“God really does some amazing things on these trips,” she said. “I went, and I was hooked. … [God is] already working in Alabama. … Diane says it over and over, and I’m here to tell you for sure: God does love our veterans, and he takes care of our veterans.”

“They’re phenomenal,” Hight said of Alabama’s chapter of FYSV. “They have done it. I am so proud of you guys. Y’all are so good. … I’m willing to sacrifice because I love [veterans] so much, and Chris and Elaine love the veterans like I do, and that’s why they are so successful. They have such a passion, and this is just an amazing evening.”

In addition to organizing and taking veterans on trips, FYSV provides a place for veterans to socialize and fill a void of sorts. Callander introduced Vietnam veteran Tom McKinney to the organization after the two met at an American Legion meeting, and McKinney said he “fell in love with it” after attending his first meeting.

“Vietnam was a very unpopular war in the country, and for years and years I never really even thought about it or talked about it,” McKinney recalled. “When I got involved with this organization, I realized it was O.K. to talk about it. Finally, I didn’t feel like a pariah that had been in such a protested, unpopular war. I felt a welcome home.”

World War II army veteran Major Wooten also found it easier to open up after he joined the organization.

“I just told every one of them that they just brought me out of my shell,” he said. “… I’ve enjoyed all of these people here.”

Callander said he and the other veterans in FYSV are treated “greatly.”

“We’re treated first class,” he said.

Batté formed a bond with John Kuhn, a World War II navy veteran, after receiving a call from his niece asking her to come talk to him and help lift his spirits after an illness. Kuhn recalled how Batté had taken him out to lunch and even helped him find someone to fix his roof at no cost to him.

After joining FYSV, Kuhn received a special surprise for his birthday in May 2017: a trip to Hawaii. He brought his niece along for the journey.

“It didn’t look like it did back in 1944-45,” Kuhn recalled. “It had grown so much, I didn’t recognize anything really but the water. We had a good trip, and everything has just been wonderful, really.”

Korean veteran Billy Neal said he has also been on one of the trips to Hawaii.

“I had been over there twice before working before I retired, and this was a fun trip,” he recalled. “It really was. It makes you feel young—younger.”

The attending veterans said they had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed the event. Some loved the music, some loved the dancing, some loved the food from LawLers Barbecue. Both Callander and McKinney bought uniforms to wear that night—McKinney’s a slick, tan marine uniform and Callander’s a sleek white sailor’s outfit.

“I really had fun, especially dressing up with my friend Sherwin—him in a navy uniform and me in a marine uniform,” McKinney said. “We sort of planned that.”

Callander said he plans to wear his sailor outfit again when he goes to speak at schools. Until then, the uniform is kept safe in his closet.

“It cost me $100, but it was worth it if I never wear that uniform again,” he said.

Of course, Callander also can’t pass up an opportunity to dance with a pretty girl.

“I got to dance with all the pretty girls—maybe five seconds at a time, but I danced with them,” he said. “That was fun.”

Even Neal, who said he is “not a dancer,” enjoyed giving it a shot and “moving about a bit.”

“There ain’t nothing like dancing with a bunch of Vietnam, Korean and World War II vets all night long,” Oakes said. “… It was an amazing night.”

In between dancing sessions, the U.S. Armed Forces medley was big hit with attendees, and everyone had the chance to come up and meet the World War II veterans following a video showcasing their 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge trip.

Of all the chairs set up at the front for the World War II veterans, one chair was left empty. Beloved FYSV member Warren Schmitt was in his final hours of life during the event. Batté recognized him in an emotional tribute as the others took their seats.

“He’s the heart and soul, I think, of our group in a lot of ways,” Batté said. “He’s the kindest, most gentle soul that I think most of them have ever known. Warren, we leave this chair empty for you tonight. We miss you, and we’d like to all salute you.”

Other members paid their respects to Schmitt the following week before embarking on a trip of honor to Washington, D.C.

Callander expressed his gratitude for that trip, as well as the chance to look forward to that and the upcoming Normandy trip.

“If it weren’t for [FYSV], I’d be sitting in my room talking to four walls, and sometimes they get to where they answer me,” Callander said. “I’d have nothing look to forward to or anything else. Now, I’ve always got something to look forward to.”

According to Oakes, the event raised more money than expected—a whopping $17,000—enough to send three veterans on the Normandy trip. She said next year will be “a big year” with even more trips in the works.

“I think we’re gaining momentum in the community, and I’m really excited about that,” Oakes said.

Many members of the community came out to Dance with the Stars and Stripes event to contribute to its success. Tameka Davis was one of these people. Davis said she tries to go to as many military-related events as she can because she “loves the military family.” Her father, Thomas Davis, was a Prisoner of War from 1968-1973 in the Vietnam War.

“I think it’s really important that we take time out to honor veterans, and the fact that they’re giving them their wishes to go back to places that they’ve served and fought for our country, it’s a real honor to be here and celebrate with them,” Davis said.

To learn more about Forever Young Senior Veterans, get involved or donate to their cause, visit foreveryoungvets.org.

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