1. Archive

Veterans showered with gifts

A warm smile, a firm handshake, a genuine thank you and a bag of goodies. Little things can make a big difference.

The members of the Military Order of the Purple Heart know how important small gestures can be. So the group's John F. Kennedy Memorial Chapter and its Ladies Auxiliary went to Bay Pines VA Medical Center on Saturday to honor veterans and bring them gifts.

Chapter commander Danny Sowder, 62, is a Vietnam veteran with two Purple Hearts, who lives in Dunedin and works as a mail carrier. He greeted each veteran by saying: "Thank you for serving your country."

Recipients were thrilled with the gesture - and the gifts.

"God bless you," said Richard Riddell, 64. "This is terrific."

The 164 red, white and blue drawstring bags were handmade by Sowder's wife, Bettylee, 60, who is president of the Ladies Auxiliary. They contained necessities such as combs, tissues, pens, soap, deodorant, shampoo and razors, as well as items such as crossword puzzles, playing cards, socks and other surprises.

"Thank you," said Larry Miller, 55, who served in the Army from 1970 to 1980. "This was a complete surprise.

"Cool," he added, as he examined the contents of his goody bag. "These gifts are nice. I mean, really, really nice."

Al Lentz, 67, of Dunedin is a member of the Purple Heart group, which draws members from throughout Pinellas County. He said it's important to make sure veterans know they are appreciated and that they receive the personal items they need.

The group collected items from donors as well as purchased items with chapter funds and their own money.

"I wish more people would help out," said Lentz, who received his Purple Heart in Vietnam in 1969.

He ensured each recipient was left with a final message: "You are always in our hearts. You are never forgotten."

In addition to the goody bags, books and magazines were left in lounge areas, and cookies, crackers and candies were left at the nurses' stations to be passed out to patients whose diets allow them.

The three couples delivering bags received instant camaraderie, warm welcomes and, in some cases, kindhearted banter from the patients they visited.

"Are you girls going to dance?" said veteran Frank Antos, 63, of Cape Coral.

"I haven't even looked in my bag," he said, "but this is very nice, very heartwarming."

This was not the first time the group delivered goody bags to Bay Pines veterans. Last Veterans Day, the Sowders delivered 150 similar bags.

Despite the hard work to assemble and deliver the gifts, Bettylee Sowder said it was all worth it, given the good cause.

"These men and women have given their all," she said. "They've served their county."