There is a popular saying, “Take your mess and make it your message.” You see, my father, Leland Oliger, enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1943 at the age of seventeen. He was thrilled to fight for the country he so deeply loved. Besides, he thought war had to be easier than working the farm in Arkansas. However, the combat he experienced had a lasting impact on him and our family. After serving faithfully in World War II and Korea, my father became an alcoholic.
From a very early age, I could see my dad was struggling. By trade, he was a barber and his hair was always impeccably combed, except for when he was drinking. As a little girl, I remember trying to straighten his hair, thinking if I combed it, maybe it would make everything okay. I had a strong desire to help him, but unfortunately, I couldn’t give him what he needed. I was too young to understand what was really going on. He was long-suffering with the lasting stresses of war.
Even with his struggles, my father’s deep love of country had a huge impact on my life. His journey put me on the path to help bring healing to our WWII, Korea, and Vietnam veterans. In 2006, I founded Forever Young Veterans as a tribute to my father, to give these heroes what I was unable to give my dad. He, unfortunately, died in 1982 at the age of fifty-six.
When I started Forever Young Veterans, I intended to simply fulfill wishes for our older veterans, like reuniting a veteran with a comrade or helping them obtain a medal that they never received. However, as I went further into this mission, I had no idea how many of our veterans were still suffering silently, just like my dad. I knew there was more that we could do for them.
We discovered that returning these battle-hardened heroes back to the places they fought softened them. Walls began to come down and relationships began to heal. For the first time they were able to see that their sacrifice mattered and it wasn’t in vain. They were able to get a new image in their minds of the places and people they fought to liberate. Memories of death and destruction were replaced with those of a beautiful free land and the praise of a grateful people. We discovered the most important part is they don’t have to go at it alone. They share these experiences with men and women who have similar stories.
Forever Young Veterans has honored more than 2500 senior veterans by granting their individual wishes and returning them to the places where they fought like Normandy, Belgium, Pearl Harbor, Italy, Luxembourg, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. In addition, we’ve had the privilege to take our vets on our military Trips of Honor® to Washington DC and also to New Orleans, where our WWII veterans visit the World War II Museum. It’s all about honor; if there’s a place where our vets want to visit, we make it our goal to take them. Right now, we have some WWII veterans who want to visit the Pacific Museum in Fredericksburg Texas, so we’re working toward their wish.
When we’ve returned WWII veterans to Normandy or Belgium, they’d often hear, “our dear liberators,” as they traveled around the countryside. It moved them to tears because they weren’t expecting such honor from the locals. At Utah Beach, a Frenchman hugged one of our vets, put his head on his shoulder, and wept, saying over and over again, “Thank you for saving France.” Our veteran was overcome with emotion. “I never would have believed this if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes,” he said.
W.T. Hardwick, who landed on Utah Beach on D-Day, was captured in the hedgerows of Normandy. He was stuffed into a boxcar so tightly he couldn’t move. No water was available unless his tongue happened to reach a raindrop while en route. Memories of soiling themselves, sleepless nights in the boxcar, and abuse in the camps gave W.T. nightmares for years. However, after returning to Normandy for the 70th Anniversary, something happened. “Before, I would dream of being tortured as a prisoner,” he stated, “but now when I dream, I’m coming home.” It was a lifelong wish of WT’s to take his daughter, granddaughter, and great-grandchildren to Normandy. He wept as he said, “I want them to tell their children that they walked on the beach where I made the invasion.”
After a recent DC trip, a wife called and told us, “My husband has suffered from PTSD our whole marriage and has had a lock on his heart since Vietnam.” She mentioned, “The FYV trip was the key that unlocked his heart and love came pouring in. He’s a changed man!” Many family members have stated that their fathers are much happier, more out-going, and easier to be with after returning to the places where they fought. Not only do these trips change the veterans lives, but they often change the dynamics of the family. It’s like throwing a stone in a pond and watching the ripple effect of the rock entering the water. There is no limit to the never-ending impact of a restored life.
A son who was estranged from his Vietnam veteran father flew to Washington DC to surprise his dad while we were there on our Trip of Honor®. He hadn’t spoken to him in 15 years and wanted to apologize to him in person and say how extremely sorry he was for everything. It was a God-moment because we didn’t know he was coming and, as it turned out, his dad just happened to have an empty seat beside him at the restaurant. He slipped next to his dad who was involved in a conversation, and when he finally looked in his direction, they cried and embraced. On every trip, we see miracles like this happen! God knows what these heroes need.
What started off as a family tragedy with my dad’s alcoholism actually brought goodness and healing to many lives, including mine. Through Forever Young Veterans, my father now has a new legacy. He is no longer remembered for his struggles, but for bringing honor, healing, and hope to America’s heroes. I know he’s watching, and no doubt, it makes him proud!
Forever Young Veterans Book
Forever Young Veterans: Stories of Sacrifice, Healing, and Hope contains twenty-two personal stories of our veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
For a moment, you will be with our veterans as they are being captured in North Africa, fighting at the Battle of the Bulge, bailing out of an aircraft over Germany, piloting a B-24, fighting at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, surviving the Hanoi Hilton in North Vietnam, and storming Omaha Beach, to name just a few. The cost is $20 and all proceeds from the sale of the book will help honor senior veterans on Trips of Honor®. The book releases on November 11th and can be purchased online at amazon.com.