May 27, 2011
By Jennifer Willis
For T.J. Montoya, a finance counselor in GCU's Military Division, visiting the VA Medical Center and Arizona State Veteran Home is close to his heart.
Montoya's grandfather was a veteran who spent time there, and he would bring his daughters to visit him often.
"It's my way of giving back to those who have served," Montoya says. "I came with GCU last year for Memorial Day and I'd like to come again next year - make it a tradition. These people have given us so much, and they deserve so much more."
The veteran home, a 200-bed facility adjacent to the VA Medical Center, received about 50 visitors from the Military Division on Wednesday morning in advance of Memorial Day. It's an assisted-living facility that offers round-the-clock care plus physical, occupational and speech therapy. All of the residents are veterans or spouses of veterans.
As Montoya walked into the room where everyone was gathered Wednesday, he was spotted right away by a familiar face.
Veteran Bill Krause, who spent 24 years in the service and fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars, called him over. Krause teared up when he talked about what it was like flying home with the bodies of soldiers who had been killed in combat.
"Gave me a lot of time for reflection," he said. "I felt honored to be aboard that plane to help escort them home."
Montoya and Krause reminisced about the time they spent together last year - and about Montoya singing karaoke.
"I've been practicing something for you," Montoya told Krause before doing a Christopher Walken impression. "I couldn't do it for you last year, but I worked on it for you this year."
In another room, GCU employees helped with a music therapy session, singing along with residents to songs such as "You Are My Sunshine," "Twist and Shout" and "Home on the Range." Maracas, cymbals, tambourines and bells were brought out, and all joined in on Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel."
In a third room, a cooking class took place. The visitors helped residents make a cake with strawberry topping. Bob Irwin, who spent four years in the Marines, wasn't a fan of the cake, preferring the doughnuts furnished by GCU and Albertson's.
Finally, everyone gathered back in the large common room to sing the four service hymns. GCU Finance Counselor Erica Henderson spoke with a woman named Maggie, a retired flight attendant for the Navy who has four degrees and once took a Spanish class at GCU.
"I wasn't very good at Spanish," Maggie admitted. "Don't tell anyone, but I got a 'C' in the class."
Her eyes lit up as she told Henderson about her late husband, a pilot in the Air Force. "He was a heck of a dancer," she said with a smile.
For Henderson, the occasion was a way to show appreciation.
"I've wanted to volunteer with the VA for a while," she said. "When I found out about this Memorial Day event, I was the second person to sign up."
As the GCU employees filed out, hugs were given freely and "Thank you for your service" was heard throughout the room. Enrollment Counselor Roz Tejeda said she came because she talks to veterans on the phone all the time but doesn't get the opportunity to thank them in person.
"Every branch of the military is represented in my family," Tejeda said. "For me, Memorial Day is a time for remembering all the sacrifices that the service men and women have made, since I personally couldn't serve."