Brenda Valdez, decked out in a red, white and blue blouse, remembers a husband who was only 16 or 17 when he fibbed his way into military service after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“Best man in the world,” Valdez said. “He was soft-spoken, very humble, no vanity, no violence—just such a wonderful human being. He loved and served others.
“That’s what he did.”
Valdez was presented with a certificate of appreciation for her late husband’s service at a Veterans Day tribute for residents of Westchester Senior Living in Tempe. Strains of “Stars and Stripes Forever” echoed from a boom box on a table festooned with bunting, and Westchester aides pushed wheelchairs through the meeting room as the event got under way.
On hand to present the certificates and offer a salute was another veteran, Jason Schechterle, who earlier in life served in the U.S. Air Force. Schechterle is a former Phoenix
police officer who survived a horrific accident in 2001 and went on to inspire thousands across the country with his story of overcoming extreme adversity.
Jeff Cooper of Serenity Hospice, the organization that led the ceremony at Westchester, introduced Schechterle to the 40 or so residents and their family members on hand for the Veterans Day salute.
“On March 26 of 2001, Jason’s patrol car was struck from behind by a taxicab going approximately 115 miles per hour,” Cooper said. “His patrol car burst into flames and Jason was immersed in 700 degrees of fire.”
“Miraculously,” Cooper said, a Phoenix Fire Department truck was at the intersection where the accident took place and firefighters were able to pull Schechterle from the vehicle
in 90 seconds. He’d suffered burns on 40 percent of his body and went on
to endure a painful recovery and 50 surgeries.
“He has spent his life since [the accident] sharing his story of overcoming adversity, how he rose above that,” Cooper said. “Jason describes himself now as the luckiest man on earth. We are so honored and privileged to have him on our team.”
For his part, Schechterle said veterans are “near and dear to his heart” because of the many members of his family who were in the military. His grandfather served in World War II and Korea, and did three tours in Vietnam.
“My father, my brother and nephew all served, and I had a wonderful four years in the United States Air Force,” Schechterle said.
Eugene Franz, wearing a U.S. Marines T-shirt and accompanied by his wife and son, was one of those saluted by Schechterle. Franz said he joined the Marine Corps Reserve while still in high school in Wisconsin. “They said if you didn’t get in the reserve,
you were going to be drafted,” Franz said. He traveled from state to state but never left the country.
“They trained me for mortars; they trained me for telephones, for switchboards, for radio. I went from one base to another, but the guy next to me—I was a corporal—he was a private first class and they went to Korea right away.”
Al Christiansen, also a USMC veteran, quipped he was responsible for ending the conflict in Korea. “I was home on leave in July of 1953—I had leave before I was sent overseas—and when they heard I was coming they decided to quit shooting,” Christiansen joked.
He served two years, four months and four days, then returned to his job in Cedar Rapids, Iowa as an engineer at Collins Radio Company.
Cooper read the names of each veteran along with their branch of military service, and Schechterle and another Serenity Hospice team member presented the certificates and lapel pins.
Afterward, Schechterle explained why he decided to join forces with Serenity. He lost his father two years ago and hospice was there.
“As hard as it was to lose someone so close to you, it was a beautiful experience. He was at peace and we were at peace,” Schechterle said.
“When the time comes, when you need it, hospice makes it so much more peaceful, both for the person transitioning but even more importantly, for the ones left behind.
“This has been my new calling to wear this shirt and be a part of this.”