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At the holidays, gifts from vets to vets

Art Press and other members of Jewish War Veterans, Post 605, loaded holiday gift bags for veterans last week at Ohev Shalom.
Art Press and other members of Jewish War Veterans, Post 605, loaded holiday gift bags for veterans last week at Ohev Shalom. The Kansas City Star

Because veterans look out for each other, Mike Katzman has been putting together holiday gift bags for his fellow former servicemen and women for about a dozen years.

The veterans who receive the 250 bags Katzman and his group assemble are in difficult circumstances of one kind or another. Some are homeless, while others are stuck in the hospital over the holidays. Many bags go to St. Michael’s Veterans Center in Kansas City, which gives a temporary home to veterans who are trying to transition back to normal life.

Katzman, a 94-year-old World War II veteran who lives in Overland Park, works with Jewish War Veterans, Post 605, and other veterans from around the area to collect donations, assemble the bags and deliver them to a rehabilitation facility and the VA hospital in Leavenworth, the VA hospital in Kansas City and St. Michael’s Veterans Center.

Each bag has an assortment of items, including a sweatshirt, T-shirt, two pairs of white socks, a wool cap, a regular cap, a water bottle, a backpack, a box of tissues, a book, various toiletries and more. All the veterans also get teddy bears, and many packages will also carry letters from Overland Park schoolchildren.

“Everything that’s in there is something I would keep for myself,” Katzman said.

It’s important to him that the veterans not only get these gifts but that the things they receive are high quality.

Monetary donations come from all over the Kansas City area, and Katzman personally chooses many of the items that go into the bags.

“They bring those gift bags for our vets every year around the holidays, and there’s a whole range of cool things” inside, said Melissa Jacobson, chief of voluntary service at the VA hospital in Kansas City. “We give them to patients who are stuck in the hospital over holidays (and) sometimes give them to needier outpatients. For a lot of our patients who don’t have families, that may be the only thing they get as Christmas gifts, so it means a lot to them.”

Jacobson said the hospital would probably have about 100 inpatients this year over the holidays. The veterans are all ages, from World War II to those just returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Mike and the Jewish War Veterans organization have been supporting our inpatients and outpatients through this holiday program and other gifts throughout the year for many, many years,” Jacobson said.

It’s always difficult for Katzman when he sees veterans who are emotionally or physically ailing, but he wants to make sure they have a gift. He was a beneficiary of the Honor Flight program, and he understands how important it is to do something special for his fellow veterans.

The program is a lot of work for anyone, but for Katzman, it’s a calling. After he lost his wife of 56 years in 1997, he knew he wanted to spend his time helping people.

“I just like to help the veterans. I’m one of these active guys,” Katzman said. “I’ve always been a leader. I join an organization, and I get busy.”

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