BY GARY J. KUNICH
Laura Rinaldi was dead tired.
You can only stay up so many hours, deprive yourself of so much sleep, and keep pushing, pushing, pushing until it becomes too much, but she kept on going.
Rinaldi, the creator of Reclaiming Our Heritage, a one-of-a-kind, two-day, living history event on the Milwaukee VA campus, takes a lot of work. She and a core group of about 14 others usually find themselves working behind the scenes at a breakneck, around-the-clock pace in the weeks leading up to the big event. That usually means operating on only a few hours sleep when you can get it.
It was too much and too exhausting to go on. The crew made plans for the 10th and final year in 2011. But when the public begged for it to come back, they had a change of heart.
Reclaiming Our Heritage is back again, and organizers hope – for the Veterans’ sake – to keep it going as long as they can.
This year’s event takes place June 2 and 3. Complete information is available at https://forohmilwaukee.org .
This year’s event features a partnership with the VA’s Iraq and Afghanistan outreach team, in hopes of signing up new Veterans for care and letting them know they have a place for top-notch medical care.
Rinaldi said the Veteran outreach is the most important part of Reclaiming Our Heritage.
“Initially, this started as a chance to highlight our historic buildings and raise awareness, but then quickly evolved and shifted to focusing on the Veterans,” Rinaldi said. “This is something the veterans and the community looked forward to each year.”
Reclaiming Our Heritage has grown year by year to include hands-on, historical displays from almost every military era, re-enactors, and a dazzling parade that leads through the campus.
It attracts thousands from around the area.
“The deeper meaning really hit home a few years ago when we specifically honored the Vietnam Veterans,” Rinaldi said. “A woman came up to us and told us her husband was in Vietnam, but refused to talk about the war, or any of his experiences or even get his care at the VA. A friend of his urged him to go to ROH, and he spent four hours in the Vietnam tent. She said he came out and he was a different man. It was a weight off his shoulders, he signed up for VA care and started going to therapy. It changed his life, and she was so grateful.”
That was driven home during last year’s Memorial Day parade through downtown Milwaukee when word just start getting around that Reclaiming Our Heritage would be no more.
“This Vietnam Veteran in a uniform and a wheelchair rolled over to me and grasped me with both hands,” Rinaldi said. “He looked at me with a tear in his eye and said, ‘Please ma’am, tell me this is not the last one.’ After that, we had to do it.”
Rinaldi tears up as she tells the story.
“So I’m tired. But who am I if I can’t make the effort for the rest of the people like this gentleman in uniform?”
Still, it’s not easy putting on an event of this magnitude, which is largely put together with hundreds of hours of volunteer time. VA employees who put it together do it on their own time, and usually take vacation just to make it happen.
“We always get a hotel room (across from the VA), and last year I remember we got to bed at 2, and were back up at 5:30 to go back to work,” Rinaldi said. “We’re usually there long after everyone goes home, too.”
Not everyone has to put in those hours, mind you. But the Reclaiming Our Heritage committee said there are plenty of places to sign on.
Even if someone can give a few hours, it helps take the load off of others, even for a little bit.
“When you see the look on a child’s face during the parade, or a Veteran who just bursts with pride at this event, and everyone enjoying themselves, that is a tremendous payback,” Rinaldi said.
Those interested in more information or volunteering, can get more information at the web site.
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