When Tom Puckett was on active duty in the U.S. Army, he never experienced combat. But he always remembered the ones who fought.
"I was with them during their recovery from injuries, and I just became overwhelmed by what these people did," says Tom, a retired colonel and resident of Wind Crest, the Erickson Senior Living community in Highlands Ranch, Colo.
His gratitude led him to decide that he would form a group to honor veterans living at Wind Crest.
"We really wanted to demonstrate recognition and appreciation for them," says Tom.
In 2017, Tom and five other residents--Bob Lee, Brad Bradbury, and Jack Liggett, as well as the late Cliff Butler and Norm Walters--formed the Veterans at Wind Crest (VWC) group and organized a celebration for Veterans Day in the Arts and Enrichment Center.
"We decided to start by simply recognizing all World War II veterans," says Tom. "To our surprise, 410 people showed up at the event!"
Not only did they fill the auditorium, but the attendees overflowed into the hallway outside and a nearby conference room. "That was just the beginning," Tom notes.
The celebration has continued each year since then, and this year's Veterans Day event features Susan J. Helms, retired Air Force lieutenant general and astronaut, as the guest speaker.
Helms was the first military woman in space, served on the International Space Station on five space flights, and holds the world record for a spacewalk lasting 8 hours and 56 minutes.
She's also the daughter of Wind Crest residents Pat and Dori Helms.
Remembering their heroes
The VWC works with a number of external organizations to honor resident veterans throughout the year. One is the Forgotten Heroes Campaign, a national nonprofit that ensures veterans who have served their country receive the honors they earned--but never actually received--such as awards, medals, badges, and ribbons.
"A member of the Forgotten Heroes Campaign prepares shadowboxes with mementos, medals, rank, and other items and presents them to the veterans," Tom explains. "The recipients of the shadowboxes are typically modest about their achievements too."
When resident Fred Wiese received one, he said he didn't deserve it because he didn't do anything special.
"Fred was a B-17 bomber pilot in World War II. He flew 35 combat missions over Germany," says Tom. "These guys have a huge amount of humility."
VWC also works with the national Quilts of Valor program through a local group, the Smoky Hill Quilt Club. Members create handmade quilts for veterans, creating a custom design and personalizing them with each service member's name and rank.
Over the years, the group has expanded its programs. They now honor veterans from Korea and Vietnam Wars as well.
Between a Quarterly Speakers Series and the Veterans Day event, the VWC has hosted guest speakers including an Army nurse in Vietnam, a four-star Air Force General, and military historians.
The group also works with an archivist at the Douglas County Libraries who interviews veterans living at Wind Crest and submits the transcribed interviews to the Veterans History Project at the Library on Congress for preservation.
"The stories these veterans have are extraordinary," says Tom.
The VWC also supports veterans on campus by working with the Treasure Chest, the community's resale shop, to secure motorized scooters for those who need them.
According to Jeff Bell, who heads the program for VWC, volunteers add new batteries and refurbish them in any way needed, then provide them to Wind Crest veterans at no cost. So far, they've given away more than 50 scooters.
"We don't just deliver them to the veterans," explains Jeff. "We take the time to talk to them and ask about their military history. It's a pleasure for us because we learn about them and see how happy they are, as these motorized scooters are expensive."
Dedication and honor
On Wind Crest's campus, near Pike's Pond, there is a legacy garden that residents like to visit. On Armed Forces Day this year, the VWC made the area even more special.
With a $5,000 grant from the Treasure Chest, the group dedicated a 25-foot flagpole with lighting, a dedication plaque, and all the emblems of the military services embedded into a surrounding wall. The American flag and the POW/MIA flag fly there 24/7.
"It's a labor of love," concludes Tom. "There's a ten-person committee that coordinates everything, but there are hundreds of people here involved in helping us honor our veterans."
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