BELOIT - Not many people can say they escaped a sinking ship.
But that's part of the reason World War II U.S Navy veteran George Olson of Beloit was at the VetsRoll Reunion Luncheon at the Eclipse Center on Sunday. He was among understanding friends and fellow heroes because, for every veteran, there's a story.
"I'm a veteran, and it's a brotherhood. We are all part of the family," said Marvin Meister, a U.S. Army Vietnam era veteran from Edgerton. "It's a very emotional experience to meet other veterans and to hear their stories," Olson said.
Sunday's reunion event attracted more than 700 people including veterans, volunteers and family members who enjoyed lunch, door prizes and memories from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. The festivities also included a presentation honoring the 400 VetsRoll veterans who passed away during the past decade, according to VetsRoll co-founder Mark Finnegan.
Those in attendance shared the stories of the trips they took to Washington, D.C. as part of VetsRoll as well as unforgettable war stories.
Olson, 92, said he had been aboard a destroyer when it was torpedoed and then hit by a kamikaze pilot in Okinawa, Japan in World War II. The air pressure of the sinking vessel was so strong Olson was shot out of the escape hatch before landing in oil-saturated waters. He recalled floating until he found a piece of debris to grab onto and was rescued 30 minutes later by another ship. With such a unique experience, Olson said he was glad to have been embraced by VetsRoll.
"It was one of the most rewarding trips I've ever taken. With people recognizing the service of veterans, it made you feel the effort was worth it," Olson said.
Olson was joined at the event by his good friend World War II U.S. Navy veteran Stan Van Hoose, 98, who is a Pearl Harbor survivor. Olson went on VetsRoll in 2010, and Van Hoose attended in 2014.
Korean War U.S. Army veterans Ingolf Haugen, 90, and John Casper, 86, of Janesville, said they attended the reunion to catch up with fellow VetsRollers. Haugen, who served in an infantry division in the Korean War, suffered a head injury from shrapnel during his service. The men said they were glad to attend VetsRoll events which continue to grow. They recalled the VetsRoll motorcycle escorts, visits to war memorials and endless camaraderie. Haugen attended VetsRoll in 2017, and Casper took the trip in 2018.
"I'd go again if I had the chance," Casper said.
Meister, who retired as a sergeant in the National Guard, and his wife Donna volunteered to go on VetsRoll to assist in 2011, with Marvin Meister taking the official trip in 2016. The trip was so moving the Meisters decided to collect and crush thousands of aluminum cans to raise enough money for other veterans to attend.
World War II Army/Air Force veteran and former radio operator Wally Sorenson, 97, of Rockford, also stopped in at the reunion and spoke highly of VetsRoll after his 2018 trip. He called it the most marvelous organization he's witnessed in his lifetime. It not only transports veterans to war memorials and honors them in an efficient way, but Sorenson said it also cultivates a culture of helping others.