A No C’s Weekend in Washington, D.C.

By Tony Mussari
Pictures by Kitch Loftus Mussari
Mickey Thompson
Copyright 2011
The Face of America Project
Mussari-Loftus Associates, LTD

All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don’t. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity. Robert F. Kennedy

The Emily J.T. Perez Foundation Banquet

Kitch and I spent a no"C’s" weekend in Washington, D.C. (no video camera, computer, or talk about cancer). We could not stay with my daughter in Virginia, because her husband had the H1N1 virus so we made arrangements to stay at the Sheraton National Hotel in Arlington, Virginia. It was a wonderful choice for many reasons: price, location, beautiful accommodations, and its proximity to the Army Navy Country Club.

We went to our Nation’s Capital to participate in the annual banquet sponsored by the Emily J. T. Perez Foundation.  2d Lt. Emily Perez is the inspiration for our Face of America project. She is a shining example of “The New Greatest Generation.” She was 23-years- old when she lost her life in Iraq. Her parents, Vicki and Daniel are supporters of our project and friends we admire and respect.

Kitch and I were asked to produce a video about Emily. It was scheduled during the first part of the program and appropriately called “A Moment with Emily” by the Mistress of Ceremonies, JC Hayward.

J C is one of the most respected women in television in the Washington area.  She is woman of dignity and class. She is a pathfinder in the truest meaning of the term.  JC Hayward was the first female news anchor in Washington. She anchors WUSA’s 9 News Now at Noon, and she produces “JC and Friends.”   It is always a delight to share a podium with JC Hayward.

We were very touched by JC Hayward’s comments about our work:

How wonderful it was to be with you for the 3rd annual Emily J.T. Perez dinner!  The event has become a special engagement for me and I am honored to be a part of such an august fund-raiser. I don’t have to tell you how special Emily was and is. Your video captured her life, her passion and her inspiration. You should be commended for your hard work and the spirit you produced. It is obvious that you put your heart and soul into the project and it is evident that you care deeply about Emily. I was so happy when the foundation honored you for your lasting support. The Perez family is indebted to you and we all thank you for your sincere dedication to the life of this soldier.

When the video ended, Vicki and Daniel Perez accepted the National 9/11 Remembrance Flag. In a very real way, this is their flag, bcause their daughter gave her life for America in the aftermath of the day the earth stood still for America. For this and so much more Emily and her parents will always be associated with America at its very best.

You can see Emily’s video at this address:

Moving Beyond Your Now

Mechelle Lewis was the keynote speaker. She is an Olympian and a professional track and field athlete. Her curio cabinet is filled with awards for the 100 meter dash and the 4×100 meter relay.  On this evening she spoke words that had special meaning for the young women in the room who are participating in the Emily’s Way Mentoring Program.  

Mechelle’s words resonated with Kitch and me:

You must move beyond where you are.

If you want to get better at anything surround yourself with the best, a mentor, someone who has done it before.

Rely on emotions and you will experience insecurity.

Rely on faith and you will open the door to miracles. Faith is an action word.

Everything in your now that doesn’t make sense will one day. The question is, “Do you have the strength to keep moving forward?”

See yourself beyond where you are now. See yourself where you want to be. With sacrifice, heart, excellence, and resilience, you can get there.

When Mechelle finished her speech, she received an enthusiastic and well deserved response from everyone in the room.

A Very Special Moment

During the last part of the program, Kitch and I were taken by surprise when Vicki Perez gave us one of the two Emily’s Way Service Awards for 2011. It was a singular moment of joy, humility, peace and satisfaction. It was a feeling unlike any other we had experienced during our Face of America journey. When our eyes met Vicki’s, no words were necessary. The warmth of her embrace and the tears in her eyes told us we were home in a place where we belonged.

Standing next to JC Hayward, an Emily’s Way 2011 Service Award winner and Vicki and Daniel Perez, my thoughts drifted back to a moment in 1968, when young, idealistic students were seeking a newer world of justice, equality and peace.

It was a dark time in our history, but the bullets from assassin’s guns could not stop the march to freedom and justice.

All these years later the adolescents of those years are the seniors of today trying to understand these turbulent times.

On this night we were standing together as equal partners in a common cause. We were standing together celebrating Emily. We were sending a clear message that the dream we share with her is very much alive and living in the work of her foundation and in the lives of the young women the foundation serves.

We were standing in the light of our heroes who spoke words that inspired us and made this moment possible:

“Some men see things as they are and ask why? I dream dreams that never were and ask, why not?” Robert F. Kennedy

“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.“ Martin Luther King, Jr.

On this evening in February, in the shadow of memorials named in honor of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, everyone in the room was walking in the light of Emily, Robert and Martin. It was a Face of America moment we will never forget.

Irony and Serendipity

Emily Perez was born on February 19, 1983. More than a generation before her birth 70, 000 U.S. Marines were invading Iwo Jima during the final stage of World War II.

On this weekend, veterans from that famous battle were commemorating the 66th Anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima. The Sheraton National Hotel in Arlington was the headquarters for their convention. For me, seeing these men was like a trip back to my childhood.  These soldiers were larger than life when I was child. These are the men who taught my generation what we know about courage, honor, masculinity, patriotism and loyalty. These men of the Greatest Generation and their wives walk with dignity and grace. They have a special aura about them, and they can teach us much about the Face of America on its best day, because they are the Face of America on its best day.

Every one of them is a national treasure. Yes, they are old.  Yes, many of them walk with assistance. Yes, their speech is slower and their hearing may be a bit impaired, but when they enter a room, when they shake your hand, when they look you in the eye, and when they answer a question, you know you are in the presence of greatness.

This is but one example. The first Marine we met was a very tall and very distinguished Iwo Jima veteran named John Huffhines. John lives in Richardson, Texas. This is one exchange from our brief, but memorable conversation. “It must have been quite an experience.” “It was.” He replied, “But we get over it.”

Jerry Yellan lives in Vero Beach, Florida. He is a thoughtful man with wonderful insights. He put his Iwo Jima experience into a larger context with these words: “All wars are fought for profit. Take the profit out of war, and there will be no war.”

Jerry Yellin knows something about war. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps one month before I was born. He was 19 years old when he was he was assigned to the Pacific Theater as a member of the 78th Fighter Squadron. He participated in the first land based fighter mission over Japan on April 7, 1945 and the last mission of the war on August 14, 1945. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with an Oak Leaf cluster and the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf clusters.

Jerry Yellin has written two books about the war:

The Blackened Canteen
Of War and Weddings

Call it fate, circumstance or providence, Jerry Yellin told us he had a relative who operated Davidson’s Jewelry Store in my home town, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. It was an honor to meet Jerry.

As we were preparing to leave the hotel, we met Gene E. Bell, Roy Beck and Melford Jarstad. Mr. Bell traveled from California, Mr. Beck drove with his family from Georgia, and Mr. Jarstad and his wife Lorraine flew from apple country in Wenatchee, Washington to celebrate this special anniversary.  In a very quiet and humble voice, Melford Jarstad told us he experienced all 36 days of the battle of Iwo Jima. When I asked him about his experience, his reply was short, powerful and memorable: “There isn’t much I can say any more, 6,831 dead, 21,000 injured. This will be the last time for me.”

All these men have been given the gift of age. All these men are living legacies to a much different time and place. All these men carry the wounds of war deep in their hearts, and all these men have a radiant Face of America on it best day. They are kind, helpful, thoughtful, good natured and filled with a love of country and an appreciation of freedom that is nothing short of inspiring and infectious.

During our visit with them, a young man approached Roy Beck and Gene Bell. He asked this question; “May I shake your hand?”  Mr. Beck Smiled and extended his hand. I was fortunate to capture the moment.

When I sent the digital image to Chris Leiphart, his response was prompt and heartfelt: “Thank you, sir. It was a great honor to meet true American heroes.”

One year ago this weekend, we were starting our Face of America Journey to California. Little did we know then how our journey would end. We were optimistic, enthusiastic and ready to see our country up close and in a very personal way. Despite the bumps in the road and the disappointments, we are still optimistic and enthusiastic about the places we have been, the people we have met and the opportunities we have had. We are resolved to follow the example of the soldiers we knew when we were children. Things may be a bit challenging at the moment, but we will get beyond our now. We will get over this bump in the road, because we have seen the Face of America on its best day and we are energized by the glow from its light.

Kitch’s Journey; Phase 2

Kitch had her portacath insertion surgery, her first chemo treatment and her first Neulasta, Pegfilgrastim Injection last week. During the chemotherapy treatment her blood pressure dropped, and the IV with the chemo was stopped for about 30 minutes. Since the treatment she has experienced a good deal of fatigue and a considerable amount of stomach discomfort.

Typical of Kitch, she does not complain.  At first she tried to attend to things around the house. On this the second day after the chemotherapy treatment, she has been in bed sleeping for the past several hours. During one of our conversations, she expressed several concerns about what’s ahead.

I am doing everything I can to make her comfortable, keep her spirits up and give her the help and the encouragement she needs. Being her caregiver is both joyful and painful.  In one respect, it gives me an opportunity to reciprocate for the help and support Kitch has given me and so many others over the years. On the other hand, it is very hard to watch her struggle. It is even more painful to see the anxiety, fear and frustration in her eyes.

Acts of Kindness and Encouragement

During the past two weeks, we have been blessed with acts of kindness that lift our spirits as we navigate this dark road with its many twists and turns:

Rob Anderson a member of our last class participated in a breast cancer awareness and fund-raising event in Florida. He proudly wore a sign that touched our hearts, “Dedicated to Mom & Kitch;”

On Valentine’s Day a friend arranged to have the Barbershop Quartet, Three Friends and a Baritone come to our home to serenade Kitch;

The Fox Chase Women’s Cancer Center published the Face of America article we wrote about our visit to Fox Chase on their website. This happened because one of our former students, Katy Finn, sent the article to one of her friends who had breast cancer surgery at Fox Chase. She, in turn, sent the article to the administrator of the women’s Cancer Center at Fox Chase. You can read the article at this address;

Guedis Cardenas, the president of the senior class at North Plainfield High School in New Jersey wrote a beautiful review about the impact of our screening at the High School the day after we learned that Kitch had cancer. You can read the review in the Articles section of the Face of America website. http://faceofamericawps.com/articles/

Elisa Nelson, our friend from the Stony Brook University Medical Center made Kitch a beautiful hat. Her hand written message speaks to the goodness of her heart: “This hat was knitted for you to keep you warm during cold days. Please know that a prayer was said for each stitch, and it is sent to you with the very best wishes and positive energy.”

Julie Marvel is doing everything she can to enable us to return to St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, to give a guest lecture in her class.

At the Surgical Specialty Center where Dr. Dan Kopen performed Kitch’s Portacath Insertion surgery, we experienced a perfect blend of competent and compassionate care from Dr. Kopen, Dr. Chang, Nurse Anesthetist Jerry Flora, Diane Mucha, R.N., Debbie Biago, R.N. and Annette Levandoski, R.N. Another nurse at the center, Janett Kane-Walsh, was vry nice to us.

Our grandchildren, Julia and PJ, sent Kitch a beautiful bouquet of Gerbera Daisies, the day after her first Chemo Treatment.

Michelle Sackett our friend in California, who carved all of the rocks in our Garden of Life, sent Kitch a beautiful friendship rock for good luck.

During our visit to Washington, Admiral Sally Brice O’Hara and her husband Bob took us to brunch at the the Carlyle Restaurant in Shirlington, VA. It was a delightful experience of good conversation and shared moments of friendship and reunion.

One of the friends we made during our Face of America visit to Portland, Oregon, Bob Schumacher, prepared a narrative about his experiences as a caretaker for his wife who is going through chemotherapy. His experiences have been very helpful to us.

Almost every day Kitch receives a note, a card or an e-mail from someone with an encouraging message, and every day our friend Ellen Mondlak calls to offer encouragement. Ellen just finished her chemotherapy treatments.

In my mind’s eye, these are the Faces of America on its best day, and we are the beneficiaries of their kindness.  

To everyone who has taken the time to help lighten our burden and give us hope, we thank you for your kindness and your friendship. They mean so much to us during these difficult days.

What Kitch and I are learning during this part of our Face of America Journey can best be summarized with an adaptation of Henri Nouwen’s beautiful words:

The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of confusion or despair… who can tolerate not knowing… not healing… not curing…who can be patient with our human imperfections and our anxieties…the person who refuses to give up on us when we are in the dark house…the person who reaches out to ease the pain and uncertainty that is a friend indeed.

We hope that all of your stories have happy endings

Tony & Kitch
Please provide feedback to tmussari@gmail.com

The digital pictures of the Emily Perez Foundation Award Presentation were made available by
Mickey Thompson, www.socialsightings.com