A love of music and respect for veterans prompted two friends to bring holiday cheer to retired vets at Christmas.
With a group of volunteers, retired U.S. Air Force master sergeants Rich Bauer and Jeff Cluster have hosted “St. Louis Tribute to the Troops,” a Christmas party for residents of the Missouri Veterans Home in Bellefontaine Neighbors for the past nine years. The tradition honors veterans who have served their country, they said.
Bauer, a parishioner at St. Matthias in Lemay, met Cluster through their work with the Missouri Air National Guard’s Missouri Military Funeral Honors program. Both are now retired from the guard as well. Cluster, who was a musician as part of his military service, played with a band that performed at the veterans home years ago. He mentioned it to Bauer, and they came up with a plan to come back at Christmas. They threw their first party in 2010.
“I said, ‘Hey, let’s do a Christmas party at the veterans’ home,’” Cluster recalled. “The idea took off. Rich jumped in with all hands and feet and started getting gifts and sponsors together.”
The Christmas spirit was lively at this year’s celebration Dec. 18. A band in the dining hall played old rock tunes from artists including the Beach Boys and Chuck Berry. Volunteers were lined up at tables, handing out puzzles, Christmas decorations, stuffed animals and small bags of toiletries. Veterans incarcerated at the Moberly Correctional Center donated handmade crocheted hats.
Cluster is the self-described “mouth” of the party, working on promotions and emceeing the event. Bauer is the “workhorse” — hustling year-round collecting and storing donated Christmas gifts in his garage. “He’ll probably start tomorrow getting donations for next year,” Cluster quipped.
Ernest Harris, a four-year resident, made his way through the line for gifts, ultimately choosing a set of musical dancing bears decked out in Christmas attire. An Air Force veteran, he worked in base logistics at the former Schilling Air Force Base in Salina, Kan., shipping out orders for equipment. In his retirement, he serves on the residents’ council at the skilled nursing home.
He listened to the band as they played their tunes. “It’s a pretty good party,” he said with a smile.
Suzanne Burton, who was helping with distribution of the gifts, was recruited as a volunteer by her friend Debbie Durbin. Burton’s father served in the Army in World War II, and she said this was a good way to give back to those who have served their country.
“I have a soft spot for people who have taken care of our country” she said. “I am proud to be an American.”
Resident LaRoy Smith, a U.S. Army veteran who was deployed to Germany in the mid-1970s, had a basket filled with goodies as he zipped through the dining hall in his motorized wheelchair. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986, he and his wife made the decision for him to move to the home about three years ago.
Smith, who worked at several radio stations in the St. Louis area and elsewhere, was right at home with the music. “This is great,” he said with a grin.
For Cluster, a special camaraderie motivates him to give back to other veterans.
“I love our vets,” he said. “Everywhere you go you see vets, and I try to make a point to stop and talk to them whenever I see them. It’s different than other camaraderies — it’s a permanent brotherhood.”
St. Louis Tribute to the Troops
To learn more about the Christmas party and how to get involved, visit stltributetothetroops.wordpress.com.