One Wisconsin man is on a mission to deliver a hero’s welcome for older veterans at no cost.
Mark Finnegan, of Beloit, Wisconsin, founded VetsRoll to provide closure, gratitude and respect by hosting honor tours for senior veterans. The program, he said, also gives them the welcome home experience they deserve.
When asked if any moment over the course of the organization’s 12 years stood above the others, Finnegan said it was impossible to single out any one event. Then reconsidered.
“Perhaps the time a World War II veteran broke down in tears after being able to place his hand on his son’s name at the Vietnam Memorial Wall,” Finnegan said. “That was a very powerful moment.”
VetsRoll is a four-day bus tour of sights that have significance for veterans, including the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and memorials in Washington, D.C.
Eligible veterans submit an application that gives details on their military service, including their DD-214, and medical information. The trip is organized with the support older adults might need in mind, and use of mobility devices or oxygen support can be accommodated. Trips take place in May, the week preceding Memorial Day weekend.
Although veterans from all over are eligible to apply for a tour, many are from small Midwestern communities and might not have had the opportunity to see the military milestones in person, according to Finnegan.
“Being a part of VetsRoll is one the highlights of my military career,” said Phil Ferrera, who served as a corpsman in the Navy Reserve and a medic in the Wisconsin National Guard.
He also has served as a tour assistant for VetsRoll and been part of numerous return celebrations in Beloit through his role as acting lieutenant with the City of Beloit Fire Department.
“What I remember most is looking at the monuments in D.C. with the vets,” Ferrera said. “For almost all of them, it was the first time they saw, in person, the Korean War Memorial, and others.”
Finnegan was inspired to start VetsRoll in 2010 to honor his parents’ military service. His father was in the Navy during WWII and his mother was a “Rosie the Riveter.” Finnegan’s family initially funded the project, but it’s now supported by donations and fundraising.
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The 2010 honor trip included 125 veterans and “Rosies,” on nine motorhomes and three coach buses. Today, each trip consists of 400 people: 225 veterans and 170 assistants (including approximately 40 trained medical personnel) riding in 10-12 motor coaches. Three thousand veterans from 37 states have been served by VetsRoll.
“Seeing these men together, like a band of brothers, you could almost erase the years and imagine the as young men,” said Lt. Col. Kathy McKillips, an Army Reserve nurse who has served on multiple VetsRoll trips as medical staff.
McKillips, a medical readiness officer with 452nd Field Hospital, formerly the 452nd Combat Support Hospital, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said that “each vet is special. Each one has a story.”
She has shared her VetsRoll experience with her fellow service members, who now plan to go to D.C. together as part of the medical team,” she said. McKillips referred to it as a “Tent 15 reunion” and recognizes VetsRoll as an opportunity to serve “heroes who long ago served us.”
Surprises along the route include planned thank-you parades; police escorts; and overpass and highway closures when buses roll through as a gesture of honor and thanks.
Celestino Ruffini, CEO of Visit Beloit, said the region has a “long history” of supporting the military.
“VetsRoll is an amazing organization that demonstrates how much respect our residents and businesses have for our veterans,” Ruffini said. “Their ability to provide these trips is the least we can do to give our appreciation to so many who have given their lives to grant us the freedoms we enjoy today.”
Honorably discharged veterans who served on active duty on May 15, 1975, or earlier and women who served in auxiliary roles before full military service was available are eligible.
Veterans 85 years and older as of May 1, 2023, bypass the waiting list.
According to Finnegan, VetsRoll relies on tour assistants who help with the day-to-day and medical needs of veterans while on the tour. “We’re at a tipping point right now in needing to bring on new, energetic, younger assistance,” says Finnegan. “Many of our seasoned assistants are in their 70s.”
A first-time assistant must be age 68 or younger as of May 1 of the year they volunteer.