Walworth County rallies honor U.S. troops for a decade

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Anna Marie Lux
November 10, 2014

ELKHORN—Grace Hirte found comfort with strangers when her son Benjamin deployed to Afghanistan in 2004.

Benjamin left home in June.

Two months later, casualties among U.S. troops were especially high.

Later in the year, Hirte attended a Support the Troops rally at the Government Center in Elkhorn, where she did not know anyone.

“It was a lifeline for me as a mom,” she recalls.

When she heard Bob Webster read her son's name, she no longer felt alone.

“It was a gift to know someone besides me cared about my son,” Hirte said.

Webster, his wife, Lavonne, and a dedicated group have honored the names of Walworth County troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan every Monday for a decade.

The only exception was on Memorial Day each year.

Barring any new military action, the last service member with ties to the county is expected home later this month.

“I didn't think I would live to see everyone come home,” said 86-year-old Webster, chairman of the Support the Troops Committee and an American Legion member for more than 60 years.

Lavonne is honorary chairwoman.

After 509 rallies, the committee of the Walworth County Council of the American Legion will stop the weekly gatherings Nov. 24.

The group has cited 443 men and women, and their names will go on permanent file in the veterans room of Elkhorn's Heritage Hall.

Lavonne tracked down many of the names and got permission from family members to read them aloud.

In addition, committee members:

-- Read the names of family members and of troops who had returned home.

-- Sent 10 tons of care packages filled with food and personal supplies. Cost of mailing alone was more than $23,000.

-- Spearheaded fundraising to send packages to troops once or twice a month. Beverly McLaughlin bought items, packed boxes and mailed them for several years. Cathy Jacques stepped into the big job after McLaughlin died.

Leo Schneider has been an active fundraiser.

Many other people and businesses have made large donations, which include Packer tickets from Bob and Diane Voss for raffles.

-- Placed billboards in the county to thank all veterans and those on active duty.

More than 12,000 people have attended at least one rally in the last decade.

The effort began because of a lesson learned during the Vietnam War.

“Us older veterans realize we did a disservice to the Vietnam troops,” Webster said. “When they came home, we were busy with our families. We ignored them unintentionally. We regret that.”

In an effort to not commit the same error, the Walworth County American Legion Council met in fall 2004 to talk about how to honor returning service members.

“Someone suggested we have a rally once a month,” Webster recalls. “I suggested we do it once a week. We couldn't think of a better way to let the troops know we have not forgotten them.”

At the time, Webster's health was frail.

“I was going day by day and week by week,” the World War II and Korean War veteran said.

Chris Jordan, Walworth County Veterans Service Officer, praises the effort.

“The Websters are devoted to making sure our service personnel and their families know their fellow citizens are behind them,” she said. “A core group has been very devoted through the years.”

Webster is proud of the rallies.

“I have a saying: It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,'” he said. “Instead of saying we were too busy to do anything, we have accomplished something. It has been an honor to do this. We don't want anyone to feel overlooked or neglected.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email at [email protected].

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