“I know of no other community that supports it’s veterans like this community,” stated U.S. Coast Guard Commander Charles “Chuck” Webb, in his opening speech to the audience of Veterans gathered at the Elks Lodge last night to celebrate the Veteran of the Year and the Veteran Supporter of the Year. While all had gathered with a celebratory spirit, a spirit of loss was also felt as the audience recognized a moment of silence in honor of Jim Wegener, the intended Master of Ceremonies for the evening. Jim had lost his life to an unexpected heart attack earlier in the week. This would have been his 20th year both organizing and leading the event. Replacement Master of Ceremonies, John Lefler current President of the Grand Traverse Area Veterans Coalition, read the following quote that was noted in Jim’s speech he had prepared for the evening.
“As l get a bit older each year, I have really begun to appreciate the freedoms that I have. We live in the greatest country in the world, due in part to the efforts of our armed forces who often put themselves in harm’s way to protect our rights, freedoms, and our people. I just wanted to personally say to each of you that served that I really appreciate what you did to protect us all. God Bless You, and God Bless America.”– James Jim Wegener January 17, 1948 – November 8, 2019
Upon hearing Jim’s words, the audience realized that although not present in body, Jim’s spirit would continue to be a part of each of these gatherings moving forward into the future.
True to the soldier’s spirit, the loss of their fellow comrade was recognized, but the celebration of the living soldiers meant to be recognized continued, exactly as Jim would have wanted it to be.
This year’s Veteran Supporter of the Year was awarded to Coach Tim Wooer in recognition of his dedication to one veteran in particular, Justin Hansen. Marine Sgt. Justin Hansen was only 26 when he was killed in action while pursuing a high value target on July 24th 2012. This young man had come up through the ranks of Coach Wooer’s Kingsley Football program and been shaped and molded by the lessons in character and dedication Coach Wooer expects his football players to learn and live. Coach Wooer and Justin formed a very special bond and upon entering the Marines, Justin made the request that should anything happen to him, Coach Wooer would deliver his eulogy.
“So, on a sweltering August afternoon, Tim stood before all who loved Justin and did just that in the gymnasium where he’d once mentored the fallen soldier.”(Excerpt taken from GATHER Veterans magazine)
Not only did Coach Wooer dedicate hours mentoring this young man, keep his promise to eulogize him after Justin sacrificed his life for his country, but Tim went on to initiate a tradition that continues to keep Justin’s sacrifice front and center in his life, Justin’s mom, Vicky Hays’ life, and all those who participate each year in the Patriot Game.
“The season following Justin’s death, Tim was coaching at West Senior High in Traverse City where he was inspired by his friendship with the football player turned hero to create the Patriot Game. Since 2012, the event is a yearly tradition bringing together West’s Titans, and their opposers, Central High’s Trojans, to a pre-game assembly to commemorate those who serve/served their nation.”(GATHER Veterans Magazine)
Coach Wooer was a phenomenal choice to recognize as the Veteran Supporter of the Year and received the beautifully carved eagle award with grace and humility. His spirit was not one of pride, but one of humility and deflection, knowing that young men like Justin give him the opportunity to grow into a better man himself.
Veteran of the Year, the Piéce De Résistance of the night, was awarded to Tom Whilden. The audience had a good chuckle as the Master of Ceremonies, John Lefler, shared how a cover story had been concocted in order to get photos of Tom for the inaugural issue of GATHER Veterans magazine, a new community resource for veterans, active military, and their families. He had been told that his friend from the American Legion Riders, Jan Hilewski, was being featured in a woman’s magazine so they were taking pictures of various American Legion Riders members. Much to his surprise, the hero of that story ended up being him! When handed the new magazine, he was shocked to see himself squarely on the front cover.
Tom spends a great deal of time giving back to the veteran community in various ways including the Patriot Guard Riders, a volunteer based organization of veterans who, among other acts of honor, unite to hold American flags while attending military funerals. He is director of the American Legion Riders Post 35, volunteers by taking part in fundraisers for current military families, and coordinating visits to local nursing homes visiting former service men and women. Tom is also passionate about spearheading change in areas that affect veterans including homelessness, increased risk of suicide and veteran health needs. Tom has a deep desire to do good every day for all people, but dearest to his heart is his brothers and sisters in arms. Congratulations Tom on being voted Veteran of the Year, you certainly deserve this honor although you would undoubtedly shake off the compliment and just keep doing good.
The new magazine GATHER Veterans will be available free to registered Veterans or by subscriptions. Click here for more information —> http://gathermichigan.com/subscribe-today/