No soldier forgotten

by M. SOLLE

No matter what your view of the United States Armed Forces, as Memorial Day approaches and we pause to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice so we can have our freedom, let us not forget those who are still fighting to preserve those freedoms for us and for future generations of Americans. Belmont resident Ellen Schmuker never forgets.

Imagine you are a soldier returning from an 18-month deployment in the desert. Imagine you are a soldier who saw things most people would have nightmares about and can’t comprehend. Imagine you are a soldier returning home to West Michigan and no one greets you at the airport when you arrive—no one. Imagine your thoughts as that soldier.

Now, imagine you are soldier returning home to West Michigan late at night—you are tired, sore, and just want to sleep in a warm bed. Imagine your surprise to find yourself greeted by strangers, dozens of them, all of whom just want to say “thank you” for defending our country and risking your life in the process. Imagine it.
Schmuker, a married mother of two, makes that image happen on a regular basis. Schmuker heads Hats Off to Service Members, a local organization that provides memorable homecomings to area soldiers and prides itself in recognizing area soldiers both at home and abroad. She finds volunteers to make signs, stuff gift baskets full of goods from area merchants, and greet those men and women of the Armed Services, who risk their life for our personal freedom. It’s a thankless job, but as Schmuker says, “It’s the least I can do. If I don’t do this, who will?”

Not only does Hats Off provide bags to soldiers as they return, but it also puts together bags for troops as they deploy and deals directly with chaplains who e-mail Schmuker to let her know what soldiers need at their remote outposts where creature comforts are few and far between.

Schmuker has many stories about her experiences doing what she feels is her duty as a citizen of the United States. She says often she just hangs out at the Gerald R. Ford Airport waiting and hoping a soldier is on a flight, hoping she and her group of volunteers are the ones to tell him or her thank you. No one informs her of a soldier’s return. As she put it, “It’s just hit or miss.”

Frequently the soldier is dumbfounded when presented with the gift bag, frequently asking, “Maam, are you sure this is for me?” or “Maam, do you know my mother?”
Schmuker said, “They just aren’t expecting it.”

The gift bags aren’t large or particularly fancy, but what they have inside is a little slice of West Michigan and the Rockford area. The deployment bags often have shaving/grooming kits, coffee, coffee creamer, and a leather-bound journal (donated by Mead) for the soldier to send back and forth to family members.
“It’s kind of taken the place of individual letters and is still much more personal than e-mail,” said Schmuker.

The “welcome home” bags are usually filled with gift cards to area merchants, such as Mongolian BBQ, Celebration Cinema, Spartan Stores, and Rockford’s own Wise Photography, The Corner Bar, and cookies and cakes from Grand Cakes, to name a few. Schmuker calls companies on her own time—she has a “regular” job, too—to see who can donate what. She is often rejected by larger corporations, because they haven’t heard of Hats Off to Service Members. She is frequently given the reason for their rejection of “we only give to large organizations.” Schmuker keeps a list of companies that have rejected Hats Off and is so passionate that she refuses to purchase their products for her personal use—and she’s quick to let you know what those companies are. She is also very quick to tell you who has donated and she’s proud of the list that she’s compiled. Hats Off is currently in need of West Michigan Whitecaps tickets or other event tickets for the summer months.

All of these things are donated by merchants, and no money exchanges hands to make this possible. In fact, money is rarely given to further the cause of Hats Off to Service Members. Schmuker often dips into her personal funds to pay shipping when she is asked by chaplains to ship large amounts of something. She recently sent several dozen coffee grinders to an outpost in the middle east—the shipping alone was several hundred dollars. Schmuker has even had Hillerich and Bradley, maker of the Louisville Slugger baseball bat, send bats to the 82nd Airborne and the 180th Transport Divisions.

Schmuker has a big vision for Hats Off to Service Members: to go national and make sure every airport has someone to greet soldiers. But first on her list is to make Hats Off a formal nonprofit “so it’s self-sustaining.” She would “like to find a way to pay for things.” Currently she sells hand-carved military plaques to raise money, but it’s not enough.

Schmuker is not a rich woman, but has a wealth many of us can only dream of. She has a passion for the American soldier and will make whatever financial sacrifice she needs to in order for the soldiers to be taken care of and to make their time away from their family easier.

Schmuker said, “I’m truly honored to serve. There is nothing better than to know you’ve made a difference.” She is a patriot, a real American hero in her own way.
If you’re interested in donating a good or service to Hats Off to Service Members or would like to get involved, please visit their website at www.hatsoff2troops.org.

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