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Co-founder of VetsRoll Mark Finnegan poses for a photo at his family’s business, Finnegan’s RV Center in South Beloit, Illinois.

Ronda Russell woke in a panic.

Her father’s beloved VetsRoll jacket had been given to Goodwill by accident, and she worried she might not get it back.

She explained to employees at the Beloit store how important the jacket was to her father, Ronald Russell, who died April 23.

Ronald received the jacket while attending the annual VetsRoll trip to Washington, D.C.

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Assistants Vickie Berg, left, and Jenni Jensen pose with Air Force veteran Ronald Russell during the May 2018 VetsRoll trip to Washington, D.C. Russell died April 23, but the special jacket he wore during the journey gives comfort to his daughter, Ronda Russell of Beloit. VetsRoll reaches a milestone this month when it takes its 10th trip May 19-22.

When the Air Force veteran returned home to Beloit, he couldn’t stop talking about all the attention he received on the emotional journey.

In May 2018, Ronald was among 220 vets who traveled free of charge in a convoy of charter buses to see the capital’s war memorials, museums and Arlington National Cemetery.

Because of his age and Parkinson’s disease, the 81-year-old did not think he could manage a four-day trip.

But two friendly assistants helped him stay comfortable during the journey, which was 800 miles one way.

“He was beaming when he returned,” Ronda recalled. “He came home at 11:30 p.m., but he did not look tired at all. He was just loving all of it.”

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The late Ronald Russell visits a memorial in Washington, D.C., during the 2018 VetsRoll journey. VetsRoll reaches a milestone this month when it takes its 10th trip on May 19-22.

Eventually, Goodwill employees found Ronald’s jacket in a bundle of clothes that had not yet been shipped out of the store.

“They were so happy to return it,” Ronda said. “I cried and thanked all of them.”

The first thing she did was smell the jacket, which still had a hint of her father’s cologne.

Today, the jacket hangs in Ronda’s bedroom, where she can see it and take comfort in knowing how much happiness Ronald took from the VetsRoll trip.

A humble beginning

Mark Finnegan, co-founder of VetsRoll, understands the importance of VetsRoll jackets.

After trips, veterans wear them proudly. Sometimes even after death.

Mark is diligent about attending veteran funerals.

He often sees veterans buried in their VetsRoll hats or jackets.

“It tells us how much the trip meant to them and shows what a great job our volunteers are doing,” Mark said.

Korean War veteran Merlin Hegge of Orfordville has gone a step further.

He wants Mark to be one of his pallbearers when the time comes.

“He is a very kind gentleman,” Hegge said.

Hegge, who fought with a tank battalion on the 38th parallel of the Korean Peninsula, went on a VetsRoll trip in 2012.

Mention VetsRoll in Rock County, and chances are someone will have a poignant story to share about it.

This month, the grassroots group that has honored so many veterans reaches a notable milestone: its 10th journey to Washington, D.C.

By the numbers, that means 1,965 veterans have made the trips. In addition, supporters have raised several million dollars to make the experience possible.

When Mark and his family organized the first bus journey in 2010, they figured it would be a one-time deal.

But Mark, his wife, Darlene, and his brother, John, had no idea how deeply their effort would affect the 117 World War II veterans and eight women who worked in factories during the war on the premiere journey.

Nor did they guess how wildly popular it would be.

Vets heard about the homegrown effort to honor servicemen and women and wanted to be part of the healing journey.

“Our phone never stopped ringing,” Mark recalled.

Today, a decade later, Mark is preparing for another VetsRoll journey, which begins and ends in Beloit on May 19-22.

So far, veterans from 37 states have taken the trip.

Mark is not embarrassed to say that he spends more time planning the journey than he does working at the family business, Finnegans’ RV Center in South Beloit, Illinois.

Nor does he hesitate to say that the volunteer work gives his life new meaning.

“I found my mission in life,” Mark said. “I finally figured it out.”

He is moved by the transformation he witnesses:

“I like to tell people that the veterans are all strangers when they leave on Sunday morning,” Mark said. “By the end of day four, they are a band of brothers and sisters because they have shared stories. It is so therapeutic because they talk among themselves.”

A heartfelt tribute

Like so many who were raised by World War II veterans, Mark never had a heart-to-heart talk with his parents about the war.

His father, Cy, served in the Navy and fought in the Philippines.

His mother, Barbara Jean, had three different jobs for the war effort, including decoding enemy messages for the War Department in Arlington, Virginia.

“Growing up, everyone around us was a World War II vet, and, sadly, we took their stories for granted,” Mark said. “We never sat down with them to talk about what they had accomplished.”

When Mark’s father and his sister-in-law, a combat nurse in Vietnam, died, the Finnegan family wanted to do something in their honor.

In autumn 2009, ABC-TV’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” asked the Finnegans if they would supply the cast with RVs to stay in during the building of a home in northern Illinois for a family in need.

“We decided to do a fundraiser for the family but had only a few days,” Mark recalled.

Despite limited time and the Great Recession, they raised almost $12,000 for the family.

“It told us that—even though times were tough—people would support a good cause,” Mark said.

Meanwhile, the Finnegans learned about the national Honor Flight Network, which flies veterans free of charge to Washington, D.C., for a one-day trip.

“Being an RV dealer, we saw an opportunity for us to offer a longer journey to give veterans time to develop relationships and to share stories,” Mark said.

In March 2010, he announced the first trip on the radio and in only 60 days raised more than $90,000 to provide a caravan of nine RVs, three charter buses and a support van.

The family’s lawyer, a Korean War veteran, fast-tracked a 501©(3) with the Internal Revenue Service so the Finnegans could raise funds as a nonprofit charity.

No one in the organization earns a salary.

All donations from individuals, corporations and fundraisers support the $425,000 annual operating budget.

“No public tax dollars are involved,” Finnegan said. “Yet, we are still able to hit that number. The fundraising support we get every year is phenomenal. My family and I personally want to thank all the people who do the incredible fundraising.”

Support comes from many sources.

Mark said the Tavern League of Wisconsin raised more than $100,000 in the last 12 months. The Shopiere Tap and Orfordville American Legion each have raised more than $100,000 in the last two years. Boxcars Pub and Grub in Clinton raised more than $30,000 in a single day.

“We don’t get national publicity,” Mark said. “We just do our little thing year after year, and it just grows and grows.”

This year, VetsRoll will host 220 veterans, including 20 World War II vets and 45 Korean veterans, who are 85 and older. The remainder are Cold War and early Vietnam-era vets.

In addition, 170 assistants, who help veterans during the trip and who pay their own transportation costs, will be on board the 10 charter buses.

Along the route, state and local police and motorcycle enthusiasts escort the convoy much of the way. In addition, an enthusiastic public shows up to welcome veterans home.

Mark is not a veteran, but he has four older brothers who are all Vietnam-era vets.

“By the time my brother John and I were ready to serve, Vietnam was over,” Mark said. “There is a hole in our hearts because we never served our country. This is a way we can pay it back.”

Mark said it is critical that new and young volunteers come into the organization.

“Originally, when we started this, we hoped others around the country would pick up the concept,” he said. “But the logistics of what we do is too overwhelming.”

He is thankful for the good health that allows him to continue planning trips year after year.

He has one regret.

“I wish I would have started this earlier.”

Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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