Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau
It wasn’t the salute that Grand Canyon University and Grand Canyon Education employees were used to giving.
The kind of salute warmed by hearty hugs and handshakes. The kind they have given for nine years at Salute Our Troops, the University’s signature event honoring military servicemen and servicewomen around Memorial Day.
But, in the 10th year for the event, it was the best salute they possibly could have given veterans at the Arizona State Veteran Home under the circumstances — one that was socially distant in the era of COVID-19, though far from emotionally distant.
GCU and GCE employees gathered with veterans’ family members on Thursday morning at Steele Indian School Park, adjacent to the veterans’ home, to join some 50 vehicles in a parade past residents who hadn’t seen their loved ones in almost three months.
The parade was followed by a lunch, prepared by Canyon 49 Grill, that was served to veterans’ home employees, many of whom have been working 12-hour shifts and themselves haven’t seen much of their families during this time.
“It just broke my heart not to be able to get in and spend time with the residents,” said Vanessa Garcia, who works in administrative support for Military/Business Operations, as she dappled her car with patriotic red, white and blue stars in the staging area before the parade began.
This year would have been Garcia’s eighth to participate in Salute Our Troops, when volunteers head inside the central Phoenix facility to visit with veterans. They swap stories, play video bowling or Nerf gun target shooting, and sing songs from the various divisions of the military.
But with the threat of COVID-19 – particularly on the high-risk population at the veterans’ home – Salute Our Troops had to look a little different this year.
“Because of the virus and trying to keep our residents safe, I thought it was important to stop visitation immediately,” said Col. Wanda Wright, Director of the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services. “So these residents haven’t seen their families for 11 weeks.”
Although the veterans do have access to iPads, laptops and other internet-ready devices that make virtual visits possible, Wright said they haven’t seen their loved ones in person in quite a while. Thus, the parade.
“We just wanted them to reconnect,” she said.
And reconnect they did.
Barbara Benavidez usually visits her brother, Vietnam veteran Aurelio Benavidez, every week. “It’s been hard” to not see him, she said.
“Although we won’t get to visit today, we’ll get to at least say hello,” she said. She did that and more, honking her horn and enthusiastically waving to her brother and the rest of the veterans lining the parade route.
GCU and GCE employees longed to reconnect, too, on the 10th anniversary of Salute Our Troops.
Despite the precautions, “we knew we couldn’t let it pass us by,” University Relations Manager Debbie Accomazzo said. “They’re part of our family, and we hope we’re part of theirs.”
She and Garcia crowd-sourced event ideas with Nicole Baker, Assistant Deputy Director for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs with the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services. ADVS had this idea of a parade percolating, which turned into Thursday’s event.
GCU’s Military Enrollment Operations provided hats as giveaways, the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions contributed swag, the University also provided GCU-made COVID-19 masks, and employees recruited their children to help make parade posters.
Besides the parade, Executive Chef Marcus Maggiore and GCU Hotel Assistant Manager Chris Feighery, an Air Force veteran, assembled Canyon 49 Grill sack lunches for about 130 veterans’ home employees. Those employees often work 12-hour shifts and, because of COVID-19 quarantine precautions, don’t leave the facility until their shift is over. That means they can’t leave to get lunch or dinner.
Wright added that many employees don’t want to bring the virus home with them, so many choose to stay at nearby hotels rather than go home at this time.
“We just wanted to let them (the veterans’ home employees) know that we care, that this time we we’re going to fuss over them,” said Accomazzo, who shared how GCU Hotel Manager Brett Cortright offered a 35% discount on room rates to any Arizona State Veteran Home employee through the end of July.
Accomazzo also was excited to strengthen the bonds between the University and the Arizona State Veteran Home at the event and map out new ways to align their missions.
ASVH administrators were thrilled to find out the University can provide face shields for clinical use in the facility. And Accomazzo added that she and Baker laid out a plan to connect GCU’s Strategic Employment Initiatives and Internships with ASVH recruiters because new veterans’ homes soon will open in Yuma and Flagstaff.
Jen Boyd, a Military Division student services counselor, said she was sad that the lockdown affected Salute Our Troops.
“My grandpa wasn’t a veteran, but he was in a nursing home. … People in this situation deserve attention and love. They deserve to be celebrated since they have given so much to serve our country,” Boyd said.
Nathan Batiste, a university development counselor, brought his son, Griffin, with him to help decorate their car with frilled red, white and blue streamers – and to “give back and show people love,” he said.
Military Division university counselor Kieffer Smith brought all his patriotism to play at the parade. He donned his “My favorite color is freedom” T-shirt and toted along plenty of decorations so his sons, Micah and Ryker, could decorate the family car.
“I have served in the military for a little more than nine years now,” Smith said. “My dad served. My grandfather served. I just LOVE helping that community – I know it can be daunting at times.”
Smith added that showing up for this event was more than just a way to support the military. The residents of the veterans’ home have lost a lot of the brothers and sisters they served with, and many of them might not have family who live close enough to visit or might not have family at all.
“It’s a matter of bringing a little joy to their day – to break up the monotony they might have and bring light to their day when most of their day is spent in a bed or a building. … It’s a matter of supporting their well-being and uplifting their spirits.”
Showing up, he said, even for something as brief as a drive-by parade, was something important for him to do.
“I think it’s going to be a blast,” he said just before the start of the event.
The parade was that – a blast, and more – as it led off with the debut of a new GCU-wrapped bus that brought in the University’s energetic-as-ever mascot, Thunder.
“It was great fun and an honor to represent GCU this morning,” said Timothy “Kato” Boldon, who drove the GCU bus through the parade route. “Doing this sort of thing for our heroes will be a lasting memory for me.”
Accomazzo said Salute Our Troops this year looked nothing like the fetes that have come before: “It was even better.”
“God Bless America” blared from one car. A family in another car displayed a poster that said, “Love you, Dad, for being you!” while other families showed off posters that said, “We love you, vets!” and “GGPA, we love you!”
Not to be outdone, resident Ernest Ray Hill, who wore his fashionable cowboy boots and cowboy hat to the parade, shook the sign he brought that said, “Have a Nice Day.” A fellow veteran across the parade route conveyed to parade participants, “Don’t Bump Me!”
Veterans’ home resident Bruce Craft, who carried a “We miss you” poster, said, “Oh, I like that, hey!” when one car passed by.
“It’s pretty cool,” he said of the parade. “This is amazing. I’ll remember this day.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 602-639-7901.