VFW salutes vets through Operation Christmas Cheer
By Judy Masterson firstname.lastname@example.org December 11, 2013 6:50PM
A veteran/patient at Lovell FHCC listens to Waukegan High School JROTC carolers. | Judy Masterson/Sun-Times Media
2013 Help Them To Hope Recipient
VFW Post 1293
1550 Grand Ave,
Suite C, Waukegan
Updated: February 10, 2014 2:50AM
Operation Christmas Cheer, the VFW’s annual holiday salute to infirm veterans, recently brought a parade to the Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago led by a Santa Claus who, 50 years ago, was involved in a different kind of service − the war in Vietnam.
Bill Oerly, VFW District 5 commander and quartermaster of Antioch VFW, and his wife, Jan Oerly, who played Mrs. Claus, both have their own health challenges. They drove down the long halls of Lovell in motorized scooters on Sunday, Dec. 9. Oerly stepped out and leaned on a cane in making his rounds as patients and residents of Lovell’s Community Living Center received gift boxes stuffed with goodies including snacks and toiletries and slippers, hats and lap blankets crafted by the Happy “Hookers” needlework group out of McHenry County.
“We’re just bringing a little cheer,” Oerly said.
The gift boxes, totaling 350, were assembled last week by Waukegan JROTC cadets and other volunteers, who sang Christmas carols as they were delivered throughout the medical center.
“To see all the people happy makes me feel so happy,” said JROTC Major Natali Ibara.
“We’re bringing them love and joy − the meaning of Christmas,” said Ken Hauser, a former Marine and VFW 5th District chaplain since 1993. “Many of these vets have no one to go home to.”
As volunteers hit the halls, they sang “Jingle Bells” and other Christmas carols.
Santa Claus stopped to chat with Curt Leafblad, who was relaxing in a recliner in the TV room. Leafblad said he wished he was with his family in Grayslake.
Santa made him laugh.
“It’s wonderful for us and wonderful for the kids to understand there are guys here who made sacrifices,” Leafblad said of Operation Christmas Cheer.
Lane Conn, 11, of Roanoke, dressed in red and green, with a pointy hat and pointy shoes shyly approached.
“Are you a real elf?” Leafblad asked, and laughed again.
VFW Post 1293 in Waukegan, a longtime Operation Christmas Cheer participant, was named a 2013 recipient agency of the Lake County News-Sun’s Help Them to Hope, marking the first time a veterans’ group will receive funds from the holiday campaign.
“We have to put in long hours to raise money for the work we do,” said Fredia Washington, post administrator. “I’m always worried about paying the bills. The money from Help Them to Hope will help me sleep at night.”
The post holds monthly Bingo games with refreshments at Lovell’s retirement Green House communities and it raises funds with Bingo games at its post home, 1550 Grand Ave., Waukegan.
A few more visits, including one with another chronically-ill Vietnam veteran, and Oerly, who said he suffers the effects of Agent Orange, stepped out of character, for a moment, leaning against a hallway wall.
“When we came back, there was nothing for us,” Oerly said. “We’re all veterans who have served overseas in wars. We’re doing something for our own.”