Some time back I oohed and aahed over yet another photo on Bonnie McGuire’s Facebook page. Since retiring from our classrooms at GHS, we both seem to enjoy crafting items from yarn. I knit my annual pile of hats to donate at Christmastime, and there was that temperature afghan last year. But Bonnie! She crochets gorgeous blankets for all kinds of occasions. Fortunately, she taught math – I can only imagine the computations and graph paper necessary to figure out the number and placement of all the single crochets in the popcorn stitch she uses to design blankets for newborn babies, newlyweds, holidays, and biblical inspiration.
I was doubly wowed by blanket #43, which she finished in July. The red, white, and blue inscription “Proud to be an American” followed by the names of all U.S. military branches stoked my patriotic feelings. I took even greater notice when I realized Bonnie had presented her newest creation to a former student of ours, Holly Hess. But when reference was made to this 1993 GHS grad’s longtime project of writing letters to the men and women serving our country in the military – well, it was time to make a phone call.
I looked back at a 2014 UDC article containing the facts and figures about the letters Holly sends: well over 25,000 since she started writing in 2006, five years after receiving a business administration degree at Urbana University – and, of course, five years after the 9/11 attacks. While this numerical information is certainly impressive, I really wanted to know about the how and the why of her ongoing efforts.
A casual conversation at a campground with a local guy who had enlisted right after the September terrorist attacks brought to Holly’s attention that there were – and still are – soldiers deployed in distant locations all over the globe, including Afghanistan and Iraq, who never receive even one piece of correspondence from home. Through some research on her part, Holly connected with the Adopt-a-Platoon website; and she was on her way. Now fourteen years later, Holly is working through the Soldiers’ Angels organization to regularly send letters – along with cards and the occasional care package – so that the people volunteering to defend our country can experience some feelings of care and loving from back home.
The number of soldiers to whom Holly has written, by now totaling over 230, varies as deployments begin and end. She currently writes nine letters each Sunday evening, relating whatever goings-on in the county and in her life seem interesting. Occasionally she hears from a recipient of her letters, but I sense that Holly writes and sends – writes and sends – and writes and sends some more, not for the receiving but for the giving. It pains her heart that too many people serving do not have the support system they need and deserve. Her reward is knowing there are soldiers far from home feeling less lonely because of her messages.
There have been sad times, of course, during Holly’s letter-writing campaign. One of the most difficult occurred when Graham graduate, Marine Lance Corporal Brandon Laughman, died in a motorcycle accident while stationed in San Diego. And Holly is already “on it” now that Zack Bumgardner, inspired by his cousin Brandon and spurred on by Brandon’s memory, is in basic training.
Holly has also experienced happy, exciting times. She treasures the challenge coins she has received from various military units. And there are the flags: one that flew over a base in Afghanistan, another that flew IN HER HONOR in Afghanistan and Iraq. By the way, did I mention the military ball she was invited to attend?
I could end my article at this point, leaving my readers to thank their lucky stars and stripes there are American citizens like Holly, passionate about encouraging our military folks during long and difficult deployments. A few people might even be moved to pick up a pen and dash off a few lines. But there is more in Holly’s world.
She has been associated on a few occasions with the Honor Flight Organization, whose mission is “to transport veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam to Washington to visit the memorials dedicated to honoring those who have served and sacrificed for our country.” An example of Holly’s individual mission: for one Honor Flight trip from Dayton, every one of the 100 veterans on board received a handwritten card from her.
For several years Holly has volunteered at Graham Elementary School, where she also convenes meetings of the Girl Scout troop she leads. Guess what? Under Holly’s guidance, those girls are also writing letters to soldiers.
For readers not acquainted with her, it might come as a surprise that Holly has been confined to a wheelchair since an accident at the age of fifteen. She told me she would have been a soldier, but her projects are what she has chosen to do as her part for our country.
It is a point of national shame to remember how horribly too many soldiers serving in Vietnam were treated upon their return home. Taking our cue from those shameful actions, nowadays we hear that frequent refrain, “Thank you for your service!” In my opinion, Holly Hess has been serving and continues to serve her fellow Americans in a variety of ways. Holly, from my heart: “Thank YOU for YOUR service!”
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976 to 2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.