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Commentary: Sharing stories and laughter: Making friends at the Veterans Center

Veteran Robert Black, a Purple Heart recipient, tells Staff Sgts. Ashley White and Sarah Haggard of the 507th Air Refueling Wing a war story Dec. 22, 2015, at the Norman Veterans Center in Norman, Okla. Twenty-five members of the 507th ARW and their families attended the annual Angel Tree party, delivering gifts to 20 Veterans and nearly $700 toward the resident’s benefit fund. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Jon Quinlan)

Veteran Robert Black, a Purple Heart recipient, tells Staff Sgts. Ashley White and Sarah Haggard of the 507th Air Refueling Wing a war story Dec. 22, 2015, at the Norman Veterans Center in Norman, Okla. Twenty-five members of the 507th ARW and their families attended the annual Angel Tree party, delivering gifts to 20 Veterans and nearly $700 toward the resident’s benefit fund. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Jon Quinlan)

Billy Malone, a U.S. Navy Veteran, discusses his role in the Navy with Col. Brian S. Davis, commander of the 507th Air Refueling Wing, Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., Dec. 22, 2015, at the Norman Veterans Center in Norman, Okla.  Malone and his seven brothers all served in the U.S. military. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Jon Quinlan)

Billy Malone, a U.S. Navy Veteran, discusses his role in the Navy with Col. Brian S. Davis, commander of the 507th Air Refueling Wing, Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., Dec. 22, 2015, at the Norman Veterans Center in Norman, Okla. Malone and his seven brothers all served in the U.S. military. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Jon Quinlan)

Senior Airman Talisa Edmundson of the 507th Civil Engineer Squadron, Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., assists a Veteran while opening a gift Dec. 22, 2015, at the annual Norman Veterans Center Angel Tree party in Norman, Okla. Through the Angel Tree program, 25 volunteers delivered gifts to 20 Veterans and nearly $700 collected from the 507th ARW, the 1st Aviation Standards flight, and the 513th Air Control Group.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Jon Quinlan)

Senior Airman Talisa Edmundson of the 507th Civil Engineer Squadron, Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., assists a Veteran while opening a gift Dec. 22, 2015, at the annual Norman Veterans Center Angel Tree party in Norman, Okla. Through the Angel Tree program, 25 volunteers delivered gifts to 20 Veterans and nearly $700 collected from the 507th ARW, the 1st Aviation Standards flight, and the 513th Air Control Group. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Jon Quinlan)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- This year was my first time my family and I went to the Veteran's center to celebrate Christmas. On Dec. 22, as soon as we walked into the facility, we were greeted by the friendly staff, and the Vets made us feel relaxed and right at home.

The residents had unique and interesting personalities. While listening to their stories, we begged for more details about their lives and military service.

In one of the units, we met a veteran who served in the Vietnam War as a switch board operator, Mr. Eddie Washington. Eddie was a witty fellow who was full of jokes. I could tell he loved to paint, so I asked him what he enjoyed painting the most. He said, "I'll paint anything I can get a hold of," and when he opened his gifts, he found several car and airplane models and fresh bottles of paint and glue.

After speaking with Eddie, we spent some time with a WWII Vet named Fred. Fred was known for playing the harmonica at the Veteran's Center, and he played tunes for us on his new harmonica in between enjoying his cheese and crackers and cutting up with his daughters who were there to visit.

At the Christmas party downstairs, Mr. and Mrs. Claus stopped by to distribute gifts to the residents as they celebrated with music and snacks. I was introduced to Sergeant, a smaller resident of the K-9 variety, and more therapy dogs who went around to the guests looking to be loved on.

While we were downstairs, I introduced myself to Mr. and Mrs. Jim and Betty Daniels. Jim served in the Navy on the USS Henrico. He said the ship's mission during the war was carrying Marines and other personnel across the Atlantic Ocean. The couple retired here in Edmond, Okla., and Betty commutes from home three times a week to visit her husband at the center. We made a genuine connection, and I plan to take my family to visit them soon.

I left the center with mixed emotions: I felt a sense of pride knowing that we did something good by bringing smiles and gifts to those who deserve it, but I also felt sad because many members of our unit missed out on a wonderful opportunity to give their time to the Veterans. They weren't there to give a friendly hug, share a little smile, or give a small Christmas gift to someone who probably could use one during the holidays.

Next year we plan to return to visit the men and women who have given so much to us. These people are America's true heroes and deserve all the love we can give them.

This year marked the 19th year that the 507th Air Refueling Wing sponsored Veterans for the Angel Tree Christmas Party at the Norman Veterans Center. Twenty Veterans had their wish lists filled by generous members of the 507th ARW.  In addition to filling wish lists, members of the 507th ARW, the 1st Aviation Standards Flight and the 513th Air Control Group also contributed nearly $700 in donations to the Veteran's Benefit Fund, which is used to pay for costs associated with field trips and other recreational activities. Thank you to everyone who participated, and to the 25 people who attended the party.