Local businessman and retired Army Ranger Pete Dencker, owner of SOS Retail Services, and his employees hosted a luncheon at Granite City Thursday for 10 local widows of veterans.
Some lost their husbands years ago and some recently, but they all had some things in common — a hole in their heart from the loss of someone they loved. For a couple of hours on Thursday, the women talked freely about their life and their loss, shed a few tears and enjoyed a few laughs with others who understood.
The event came about because Dencker, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran with a special passion for serving veterans, was looking for a way to give back to the community.
“We finished a really great year,” he said about his business. “I felt obligated to give back to the community. My soft spot is veterans and the military.”
He contacted then Williamson County Veterans Service Officer Jeanine Hinkle, who recently stepped down from the position because her husband was transferred. At the time, Hinkle, a former Army helicopter pilot, was working with a number of widows of Vietnam veterans, helping them get benefits they earned through their husbands’ military service. During that time, she was reminded of the sacrifices of wives married to men who are serving or have served in the military.
“For many, especially the widows of Vietnam veterans, the Vietnam War never ended,” Dencker said. “We thought if we could bring them together they could bond with their contemporaries. The important thing when they get together is that they talk, create a bond, support each other.”
Dencker organized a committee to work with Hinkle and benefit widows of veterans, and they came up with a luncheon to connect women who have lost their veteran husband so they can share information, encourage and lift each other when needed.
The committee contacted 13 widows and invited them to the luncheon. Ten showed up to be pampered and loved on by Dencker, several of his employees, Hinkle and her VSO replacement, Jeff Vaughn, a retired Marine who, with his wife, Alena, owns Triple Crown Bakery in downtown Franklin.
The widows included Barbara, a Texas native. She is an active member of Gold Star Wives and spoke about the Gold Star program and her late husband, who served in Vietnam and was working in defense intelligence when he died several years ago.
Judith and her late husband were from Wisconsin. He was a meteorologist in the Air Force during the Vietnam War and later worked for the National Weather Service. He died a year and a half ago.
Bertha and her late husband were natives of Iowa. He was an airplane mechanic in the Air Force and served a year in Vietnam. He died on Oct. 28, 2000.
Although they lived all over the country, Mary and her late husband, Wayne, were originally from Wisconsin. Wayne was a Naval photographer during the Korean War. He died three years ago.
Barbara, a Tennessee native, was married to her late husband, Gene, for 20 years. He was in the Navy and spent time in a submarine in Antarctica and as a member of the Navy Mobile Construction Battalion, also known as “Seabees.” While Gene was in the Navy, they lived in places like California and Roswell, New Mexico before landing in Franklin. Gene died in August 2019.
Christine’s husband was an Army paratrooper in World War II and Korea.
“We met in Texas,” she said.
They had been married for 38 “good years” when he died on June 19, 2019.
“I wish — I pray — everybody could have such a relationship,” Christine said.
Sandra’s husband, Mike, was in the Navy and served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1972. He died in 2017 of lung cancer, one of the effects of Agent Orange. Sandra also lost her brother, who also served in Vietnam, several months later. He also died from lung cancer and suffered much of his life from PTSD as a result of his service in Vietnam.
“You’re here because you occupy a very special place in our country’s heart, but you’re not often recognized,” Hinkle told the women. “You’re the silent partner who went through everything your husband went through, but you’re not recognized. Having you here makes my heart swell.”
Pamela Hughes, an RN with the Veterans Administration, was on hand to talk about benefits the women are entitled to receive if their husband served at least 90 days during war time.
Hughes is no stranger to the life of a veteran’s wife.
“My father died from the effects of Agent Orange,” she said. “My husband, Earl, was in the Navy.”
Before leaving, the guests of honor exchanged contact information with a promise to keep in touch.
“Thank you for your sacrifice,” Dencker told the ladies as he presented each with a basket filled with special gifts and a bouquet of flowers. “I hope you will keep in touch with each other and we can do this again, maybe next year.”