Editor's note: This article was updated on Thursday at 10:15 a.m. to correct the name of the Comcast representative who donated to the trip in March.
On May 30, 2011, Melrose Veterans Memorial Middle School held its annual Memorial Day assembly, at which Principal Tom Brow unveiled Operation Resolve—Melrose: a drive based on a national program to bring World War II veterans to visit their memorial in Washington, D.C.
Five MVMMS students answered the call: Natalie Brogan, Miranda Lombardo, Isabelle Miller, Hannah Wells and Emma Wiklund, now all eighth graders, who formed a team to fundraise for the trip.
A little less than a year and more than $9,000 dollars later, at 6:30 in the morning on May 11, the girls boarded a bus with 12 Melrose veterans and left for the nation's capital. Mission accomplished.
But the trip wasn't always a sure thing.
"At a lot of points we were getting nervous, we were like, 'We’re not going to have enough money," Wells said last Friday afternoon, as the other girls nodded knowingly around the conference room table filled with flowers, which would later be hung in the school cafeteria for the eighth grade semi-formal they'd be attending that evening.
"I was getting scared that we were going to have to say to the veterans, 'You can’t go because we don’t have the money,'" Wells continued. "I think that gave us our extra drive to raise the money ... in the beginning everyone was like, 'You’re not going to be able to do it, you're not going to raise the money.' Then we started believing in ourselves. We went way beyond that."
"It was a small thing we could do—because of what they did." —Emma Wiklund
The girls ended up with not only enough money for the trip, but to pay for the veterans' attendants, food and t-shirts—with some money leftover for next year, when the school hopes to run "Operation Thank You" that aims to bring Melrose's Vietnam veterans to Washington to visit their own memorial.
Leading the Campaign
After seeing the video Brown played at last year's Memorial Day assembly, Brogan, Miller and Wells all decided to spearhead fundraising for the trip, with Lombardo and Wiklund joining the team in September.
Lombardo said they'd meet every Monday during their lunch period with Brow and Bob Driscoll, the Melrose Veterans Advisory Board Chairman, although they each laughed as they recalled meeting around the conference table just off the main office far more often than every Monday.
Among the fundraising initiatives they started were a raffle for their fellow MVMMS students, a restaurant night at Liberty Bell, and creating calendars the Melrosians could buy to support the cause.
Then there were the people who simply donated, Wiklund said, outside of any initiative started by the girls.
"There was a ton of people who just responded to veterans, a lot of people who heard about it and sponsored it," she said.
In March, the girls got a $1,000 boost when—coincidentally—they were receiving a John F. Kennedy Library 2012 'Make A Difference' Award for their efforts. At the awards ceremony one of the keynote speakers, Mark Reilly, Comcast's senior vice president of government affairs, approached the girls with the offer.
"The Comcast guy made an effort to approach us to tell us how wonderful our project is, so he said he would fund for us," Brogan said.
An Emotional Trip
While some of the girls had previously traveled to Washington, D.C., this trip was unlike any other, and not just because they photographed and created a video diary of the trip, interviewing the veterans.
"I had been there before, but going there with the veterans was like 10 times better," Lombardo said. "Because hearing all their stories on their way there and interviewing them and seeing their reaction, because a few of them hadn’t been there before. That was exciting for me to be able to show them. It was really emotional for all of us."
Some of the veterans seemed to be in shock, Miller said, standing in front of the World War II memorial that only opened in 2004, wrapped up in the moment on a beautiful spring weekend.
Brogan recalled one veteran in particular who told the girls he didn't think he'd ever make it to D.C. to see the new World War II memorial, and brought his grandson with him on the trip.
"His grandson came up to us and he said, 'I want to thank you girls for doing this,' because he never really gets to spend time with his grandfather because his grandfather is older," she said. "He gets emotional discussing the war. And so going to Washington D.C. brought them together."
Miller remembered a story one of the veterans told her about a night mission when he and his squad found themselves in a building, pinched on both sides by enemy soldiers.
"He was like, 'This is it for me, there’s no way we can make it out of here,'" she said. "Then he said that he felt something touch his shoulder, and he saw this light, and it was an angel, and the angel said, 'Son, you can get through this.' And he survived. That was an amazing story. I just couldn’t even believe it."
With enough time on their hands, Wiklund said the group also had the opportunity to take a few Vietnam War and Korean War veterans in the group to their memorials.
"That was really special," she said. "We did a ceremony at the Vietnam memorial—we took a picture of the Melrose Vietnam memorial by Ell Pond and put it on the wall." Items left at the Vietnam War memorial are collected by the National Park Service and put on display.
One unfortunate circumstance surrounding the trip: Wells couldn't make it, as she had pneumonia. To make up for her absence, the girls Skyped her from the hotel, walking around with the laptop and having her speak with the veterans on the trip.
"I got to talk to some of them which was really cool," she said. "Talking to them after, they were just so grateful. They said, 'Even though you couldn’t come, you were still here in spirit.' And I felt like I was."
"And it really wasn’t about thanking us, at all," Miller said, as the rest of the group joined in agreement.
"It was thanking them, because that was the whole point of the trip," Wells said.
Wiklund added, "It was a small thing we could do—because of what they did."
Brogan said that one of the veterans on the bus said "We're on a bus with four heroes," as the girls squirmed with modest discomfort at the attention.
"We were like, 'No, we’re on the bus with the heroes," she said. "For some reason they were so persistent."
"I thought the nice thing," Miller said, "was that even though it was a 10 hour trip, it felt like a half hour. We bonded with so many of them. It really individualized them as people. It was just a really nice trip."
Since the trip, the veterans presented the girls with various thank you gifts, from pins, to scarves, to U.S. Air Force backpacks.
Then at this year's Memorial Day assembly, one year after Operation Resolve-Melrose first went into motion, the girls' pictures and interviews from the trip were presented as a slideshow for everyone to see.
Another Comcast representative, Tim Kelly, the company's senior manager of government affairs, presented an additional $1,000 check for next year's trip, and Rep. Paul Brodeur presented the girls on stage with a citation from the state House of Representatives, in recognition of their "dedication and efforts on behalf of the City of Melrose Veterans."
Still, the girls eschewed taking any credit for the trip, with Miller laughing as she said they didn't even think they'd be going on stage at the assembly.
"It wasn’t about us at all," Wells said. "It was 110 percent about the veterans getting to see their memorial."
"We thought it’d be just the slideshow," Brogan added. "We didn’t have to do much."