For the past 15 years, Donnie Edwards, NFL star and dedicated philanthropist, has been bringing World War II Veterans back to their foreign battlefields to foster brotherhood and closure for these heroes. With the help of his wife Kathryn Edwards, the Best Defense Foundation was created, helping these Veterans join a once in a lifetime experience with the program at zero personal expense. The foundation works hand in hand with the US military, NGOs, fellow nonprofits and governments to coordinate the opportunity for these veterans to share their stories with new and old generations, all of which owe the debt of their freedom to these heroes.
In March 2019 the foundation brought seven Veterans, ranging from 91 to 98 years of age to Guam, Iwo Jima, Tinian, and Saipan.
The foundation’s all-volunteer staff joined the Veterans, who flew from around the country to join together and fly west from LAX. The morning of our flight we cleared security for what we thought would be a simple but special announcement of their presence at the boarding gate. The Veterans and staff were delighted as we arrived to a huge send-off ceremony featuring a full TSA + Marine Corps Color Guard Presentation of our Nation’s Flag, Service Branch Songs and National Anthem sung by the TSA Choir and Challenge Coin Presentation by the United Airline Veteran Pilots. As the Veterans were escorted through the terminal to their gate, lead by the Color Guard, the entire terminal applauded and wished safe travels. Some of our Veterans were brought to tears; we were awestruck. As we settled in for the 20+ hour journey to Guam, it became clear this experience was something far beyond our expectations.
Upon our Guam arrival, the Veterans were escorted to awaiting tour buses. Before disembarking to the hotel, over 50 Guam-based Veterans supported and showed up on their motorcycles, flying the stars and stripes and USMC colors. Along with a police escort, we motored through the streets of Guam to our resort hotel where the Veterans received a warm welcome from the native Guamanian Chamorros, who’s Polyniasian style dance ceremony brought great smiles to each Veteran.
The next day was really our first opportunity to meet each of the Veterans and begin to get to know them better. On this mission, the Best Defense Foundation was able to provide full-expense-paid experiences to seven Pacific Theater Veterans including:
While in Guam, we toured the islands’ many historical sites. Our tour including the invasion beaches, where American forces landed on July 21st 1944 and began their campaign to secure the island. Today, this site is commemorated by the War in the Pacific National Historical Park at Apra Harbor, established in 1978 in honor of those who participated in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Various sites on the island are part of the Park. It is unique among the National Park System insofar as it honors the bravery and sacrifices of all who participated in the Pacific Theater. This was the absolute perfect place to present our Pelican Memento Kits to the Veterans, as they sat in front of the Multi-Service Monument at Asan Beach. Our sponsor, Pelican Products our of Torrance, CA in collaboration with foundation marketing staff created ‘Pelican Memento Kits’ which featured a personalized Pelican 1200 Cases, each with the Veteran’s Playing Card, Custom BDF Challenge Coin, Military Service Branch Patch and four small jars for the Veterans to collect, label and preserve sand from each of the Pacific Theatre beaches visited on the trip. Additionally, to help protect the memory of this amazing experience, we developed Pelican Memento Kits consisting of personalized Pelican 1200 Cases each with a BDF Playing Card, Custom BDF Challenge Coin, Military Service Branch Patch and four small jars for the Veterans to collect, label and preserve sand from each of the Pacific Theatre beaches visited on the trip. In the following post, we’ll recount highlights from the trip.
Perhaps the host humbling and moving experience of this trip for us was returning to Iwo Jima, the remote volcanic island and site of some of the fiercest fighting of the entire Pacific Theatre Campaign. It is here where 30,000 soldiers gave their lives fighting for their country. One day per year, the Japanese military base hosts dignitaries and military top brass to honor those fallen on the island. This joint commemoration, by two countries which were once sworn enemies but now great allies, is a truly cultured and progressive example of what modern peace looks like.
However, our Veterans, including Navy Veteran Rondo who enlisted at just 16 years old, can’t help but remember the island for how it was at war. Assigned to be a coxswain, charged with bringing Marines ashore, Rondo was severely wounded in the battle. Returning to Iwo Jima and standing on the black sand beaches where he was once just a boy 74 years prior, was truly a remarkable experience. With his fellow servicemen by his side, Rondo can bring a little more closure to this chapter of his life.
This experience was truly a once in a lifetime experience. These Veterans are living history. Their stories and the stories of their brothers who never made it out of the war are all too often overlooked in modern times. That is why the Best Defense Foundation, and their partnership with Pelican, are so very important; helping to preserve, protect and defend these lessons of war so that they may never have to repeat.