Holiday Mail for Heroes

Helena Independent Record

by Sanjay Talwani

In World War II, Robert Knoepke was a gunner in the ball turret of a B-24 that was shot down over Yugoslavia. He parachuted down, badly breaking his leg.

The local resistance brought him to an English field hospital for an attempt at a splint; he was evacuated to Italy, where American medics re-did the work of the English and finally saved the leg.

When he returned stateside, he got the same reaction many wounded vets received.

“Get a job and forget it,” Knoepke, of Butte, said this week at the VA hospital at Fort Harrison, describing the message then.

Wednesday, Knoepke and several other veterans at the hospital — as well as service-members around the globe — received small tokens of thanks from strangers across America in the form of holiday cards. It’s a four-year-old-effort by the American Red Cross, and for the first time the cards, a couple of thousand of them, have come to Montana, thanks to the American Red Cross of Montana.

Knoepke missed a couple of Christmases during the war and there wasn’t a lot of communication with the home front.

“When you’re 19 years old, you don’t get much mail,” he said. “I wasn’t very good at writing, either.”

Writers from schoolchildren to service organizations to U.S. Sen. Jon Tester made and wrote cards from September until a few weeks ago for the “Holiday Mail for Heroes” program. Cards were sent to Maryland, where mail-services giant Pitney Bowes screened them all for hazardous materials and sent them around the world. Earlier this week, airmen at Malmstrom Air Force Base received about 1,000 cards.

Mike Edson, mostly from Alaska and now a resident of Helena, first went to Vietnam in 1965 and last returned from Iraq in 2005, and has seen the range of public support for the armed services.

“It got really, really nasty,” he said of troops’ return from Vietnam, some pelted with vulgarities and worse.

But since the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the public has largely supported the troops, “which is the best thing they can do,” he said.

Troops nowadays also get more care upon reintegration into civilian life, receive more of the “comfort” items like toiletries, and many have frequent contact with home thanks to the Internet. Troops in Vietnam didn’t have that.

Edson spent all but one Christmas overseas during 22 years of active duty and didn’t get a lot of mail.

“Where I was at, and what I was doing, there were no mail drops,” he said.

Paul Wild, of Moore, began in the reserves in 1965 and spent 13 years in active duty in the Air Force, ending in 1993.

With a degree in psychology and a career in corrections, Wild has a strong sense of how hard it is for some to return from war. In World War II, he noted, troops returned on ships, at least giving some time to settle down. In Vietnam, they returned quickly to a hostile public. In the current conflicts, there’s a continuum of attention, from debriefings before troops return to follow-ups at home.

“That’s the kind of thing the military is addressing now, which is good,” he said.

In his hospital bed, Wild looks at a simple card, with cut-outs of a star and Christmas tree. It took someone about 10 minutes to make, he figures, but was 10 minutes someone spent to thank a warrior.

“This is the physical manifestation, if you will, of a different public mindset,” he said.