Hold the fanfare: VA volunteer’s quiet service spans five decades

Sorah and Mildred Cooper have a laugh remembering their nursing days. Photos by Jeff Keeling

Sorah and Mildred Cooper have a laugh remembering their nursing days. Photos by Jeff Keeling

By Jeff Keeling

As another family prepares to lay to rest another World War II veteran at the Mountain Home National Cemetery, Irene Sorah stands quietly by, ready to serve.

The widow of a World War II veteran herself, Sorah is at the national cemetery most every Thursday, and other times, too, on behalf of the Disabled American Veterans. The retired nurse’s voluntary service often as not takes the form of a respectful presence as military veterans or their family members are interred. She and fellow cemetery volunteers have a stock of cards that spell out the volunteers’ appreciation for the veterans’ sacrifices, appreciation those cards say, “will live on forever in the hearts of all who cherish freedom.”

“I just watch everybody to see they’re okay,” says Sorah. “I’ll sit and talk to them if they want to talk. Sometimes they will, sometimes they don’t.”

On this particular day, some family members do talk with Sorah. It’s doubtful, though, that they know she has volunteered in various capacities with the DAV for nearly 40 years – or that she was in Denver two weeks ago, receiving that veterans’ group’s George H. Seal Memorial Trophy for extraordinary volunteerism.

According to a DAV news release, the prestigious awards honor the best of thousands of remarkable volunteers who serve in the Department of Veterans Affairs Voluntary Service (VAVS) Program. The awards are conferred in memory of George H. Seal, who was DAV’s Director of Membership and Voluntary Services and the leading organizer and administrator of DAV volunteer programs.

“Our 2015 Seal Trophy winners show what volunteers can mean to our veterans,” said DAV National Commander Ron Hope. “They are there to honor the promises made to the men and women who have served and sacrificed for our freedom.”

While Sorah enjoyed her trip to Denver, fanfare is of little consequence to this member of the Greatest Generation. A native of East Stone Gap, Va., she moved to Johnson City with her husband, Perle “Jack” Sorah – a veteran of the Pacific Theater – in the early 1960s. “He spent 42 months in those islands,” Sorah remembers of her husband, whom she met after he returned in July 1945. They were married a year later and raised three children.

Sorah caught on with the DAV in the mid-1970s through some friends. She mixed in volunteering at multiple Mountain Home service areas with a busy nursing career.

She played bingo with veterans four times a month, served coffee breaks on Sunday afternoons, served watermelon during Independence Day and Labor Day and helped wrap Christmas gifts for everyone in the VA hospital – among other things.

“We just enjoyed it, and it was something to do,” she says. “I don’t know that I made any difference or not, but we were on the orthopedic ward, we were in the domiciliary, the nursing home, and the psych-alcoholic ward – that was our four for bingo and refreshments every month. People always seemed to enjoy it.”

Such service went on for more than two decades, all as this child of the Great Depression carried out all the other tasks of a working wife in her pre-retirement years. Sorah spent 28 years working in obstetrics at Johnson City Memorial Hospital and later, Johnson City Medical Center. It was one reason she often wasn’t able to volunteer at VA memorial services on Sundays.

A licensed practical nurse, Sorah worked in a variety of facets in her hospital job and gained a reputation.

“They’d bring their students in and say, ‘here’s our students, now train ‘em. I helped train all of them, RN students, LPN students – they came through labor and delivery, they got me.”

But the veterans also got Sorah, and doubtless loved the chance to be around someone who could seem like a sister, a mom, or even a grandmother once Mountain Home started seeing veterans of the wars in the Middle East. And when she first started volunteering, she could even have been looked at like a daughter or niece.

“At one time we had a couple at least that I know of that were World War I veterans,” she says. “Most of them for a long time were World War II veterans – now they’re everything.”

Jack Sorah died in 2006 after a long illness, during which time Irene took a break from her VA work. When she came back it was primarily for the memorials, but she also serves as the DAV’s representative for all the DAV units that serve at Mountain Home as part of the VA Volunteer Service leadership.

That is how Mountain Home Director Charlene Ehret has come to know Sorah. Ehret says the 88-year-old epitomizes the kind of selflessness she sees every day from volunteers representing the many groups that help Mountain Home make veterans’ experiences better.

“I don’t want to say that volunteers aren’t important everywhere, but our volunteers have a passion about veterans, and the mission and the service they provided,” Ehret said. “That makes them special, and they relay that special treatment to our veterans.”

Sorah, for her part, remembers taking regular cakes and cookies to veterans at the nursing home early in her volunteer experience, then realizing many of them were diabetic. “I said, ‘that’s not gonna work.’ So I always made sugar free Jell-o or pudding or whatever we were serving, so they could have it – they appreciated that.”

As Sorah stands respectfully for the graveside service of yet another veteran of the war she knows in her deepest being – the war whose own unique tragedies and triumphs shaped her and her husband’s lives – a breeze stirs outside the kiosk that hosts the service, lightening air that had grown heavy.

The mournful notes of Taps play, as one of the nearly 500 World War II veterans who die each day in this country joins the more than 15 million comrades who have gone before him. A total of 16 million served before the war ended 70 years ago this month. More than 5.5 million were living at the turn of the century. Today, they number just more than 850,000.

It’s a generation whose members weren’t much into talking about their accomplishments, or their struggles. In this way, Jack Sorah was much of a piece with his colleagues, Irene says.

“The boys (their two sons) tried to get him to talk about it. He’d answer a question maybe, and maybe he didn’t. He talked more to me than anybody about it.”

Without prompting, Irene Sorah isn’t one to talk much about her own service, either. But she’ll be back at this kiosk again tomorrow for another Thursday service – it’s rare they don’t occur – standing by to see that everybody’s ok.

“Anybody that gets in trouble or anything – I don’t know what I’m gonna do, but I’d be there.”


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