WWII Veteran and Purple Heart recipient: You're never too old to serve

I was in the senior year of high school when I enlisted in the Army and was sent to Germany to fight in World War II. For me, there wasn’t a question of whether or not I would enlist. My parents raised me to believe that it was an honor to serve my country. While the war was a painful and brutal experience, I never lost sight of the fact that I was serving my nation and the cause of freedom.

Today I am 92 years old. Though my military service ended decades ago, my commitment to service is still very much a part of my life. I’m living proof that you are never too old to serve others.

Of course the way I serve looks a lot different today than it did during the war. But my volunteering today has its roots in my experience during the war.

I have always cared about the wellbeing of kids. During the war, we would see kids in Germany living in dumpsters because they had lost both of their parents and were starving. We would give them the scraps after we got our share of food. These kids had nothing. It really had an impact on me and made me want to do things to help them. When it came to children, there were no sides and no enemies.

Following the war, when I was back home in New Jersey, my wife and I would take in kids who needed a safe place to live. I helped run a Little League baseball team in East Marion, New York. Caring for kids and making their lives better has always been a priority for me.

Years later, I started to pack shoebox gifts for Operation Christmas Child. This is a program that brings simple gifts to kids in need around the world—many of whom have never received a present in their lives. We have filled thousands of shoeboxes with school supplies, small cars, stuffed animals, and practical things like soap and toothbrushes.

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Boxes are loaded and ready to go for Operation Christmas Child.  (Reggie Peterson)

But the best thing I can give to these kids through Operation Christmas Child is the gift of hope and God’s love.

During World War II, I was missing in action two different times. My bags got shipped home on both occasions. It scared my mother each time. Throughout the war, though, my faith in God’s love sustained me and earned me the nickname “the preacher.” Without the gift of hope, I don’t know that I would have survived.

And so for nearly the past two decades, I have tried to share that gift with children around the world. For me, that has meant standing outside of shoe stores to ask shoppers to give me their empty shoeboxes so that my family and I can fill them with gifts as part of Operation Christmas Child. It also has meant turning my daughter’s house into a workshop where my family has packed thousands of shoebox gifts. Even in my nineties, serving others is still an important and rewarding part of my life.

This year I celebrated my 72nd Veteran’s Day. I planned to mark the day by helping my family reach their goal of packing 1,000 shoebox gifts for children in need. If you are looking for a way to honor the service of American veterans, why not spend a few hours helping others? It doesn’t matter if you are nine or 99. After all, you’re never too old to serve.

Reggie Peterson is a WWII veteran and Purple Heart recipient who has dedicated 20 years of his life to Operation Christmas Child