RONAN — Military veterans dot the Mission Valley, and all were celebrated during last Thursday’s Veterans Day. The celebration got off to an early start Wednesday afternoon when Chuck Lewis and Homer Courville presented Helen Smith, 88, with a beaded poppy for her service time and lifetime membership in the American Legion.
The idea of poppies as a symbol of remembrance for veterans and those killed in combat comes from the poem “In Flanders Fields,” written during World War I. The flower became the official memorial flower of the American Legion in 1920 and members of the organization have grown and sold the poppy for fundraisers. Helen has sold many over the years, and now has her very own beaded poppy to commemorate her hard work and dedication to her country.
“More than $2 million was raised last year selling the poppy,” Courville, post adjutant for the St. Ignatius American Legion, said. “All the money raised goes to veterans hospitals.”
Helen has done more than just raise money for the Legion; she was among the women who served the United States overseas during World War II, serving in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps as one of the first women to serve in a capacity other than as a nurse.
“I got in as soon as I could in 1942,” she said. “You had to be 21 so I waited for my birthday to get in. They liked us so much, they lowered the age to get more women in.”
After training at different bases around the US, Helen took a 12-day boat trip to arrive in London, England, and eventually Paris, France, to work in the message control center. She and other women received, transcribed and re-sent out classified information on bombings, attacks, military personnel killed and other top-secret data.
“We read about what happened in the paper the next day but you didn’t talk about it,” she said. “It was an honor and we felt kind of important.”
Landing overseas was a big step for a “country girl” from the Pistol Creek area of St. Ignatius. Helen said her family has deep roots in the Mission Valley, including homesteading relatives that showed up before the area was even established as an Indian reservation in 1910. Those strong roots brought here back to the area after her service, where she raised three children with her husband.
“When my son says his mother wears boots, he wasn’t kidding,” she said with a laugh.
More than 50 years after serving in war-torn London, Helen re-visited the English capital as a tourist.
“I never saw London with the lights on until 2000,” she said. “All the time I was there, London was in a blackout. You almost wouldn’t know the war had happened. They had built back all the buildings. The world just goes on, it doesn’t wait for anything.”
After the war, Helen worked at various jobs, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs for many years, meaning she served as a government employee for more than 30 years.
“I didn’t know they cared, and it was really nice,” she said of the poppy presentation. “I always hoped but I never expected to get recognition for it. There’s getting to be fewer and fewer of us all the time. There are 10 veterans in extended care (at St. Luke hospital) and I’m the only girl.”
Helen’s history shows she isn’t afraid of being one of the only girls in the room.