Thanking veterans becomes way of life for Poland woman
POLAND — Many people don’t hesitate to thank veterans for serving the nation via a handshake and a few kind words, but Martha Helle takes that idea one step and hundreds of cards further.
“I really have a soft spot for veterans,” Helle, 71, who grew up on her family’s Poland Township farm, said.
For years, Helle did not keep her soft spot to herself. While teaching in the Crestview Local Schools in Columbiana, the 1968 Springfield Local High School graduate bought boxes of Christmas and Valentine’s Day cards at Walmart and elsewhere, then had the entire student body of children in kindergarten through grade four sign their first names on them and decorate the envelopes before mailing the cards to veterans of all military branches.
“I would just buy up and buy up” before sometimes mailing between 350 and 400 cards to veterans, Helle recalled, adding that the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center was a major recipient.
She began the effort around the 2005-06 school year, Helle added.
Helle earned a bachelor’s degree from Youngstown State University in elementary education and a master’s degree in curriculum. She retired in 2013 after having taught 41 years in the Crestview district — 16 years as a third-grade teacher and the rest as a first-grade teacher.
She also sent cards to veterans for Thanksgiving and Easter, though she was told the latter ones were not supposed to contain religious connotations, Helle recalled.
Even though she’s retired, the longtime teacher has no intention of stopping her outreach. For example, she occasionally conducts internet searches to find veterans hospitals to which she sends cards and tokens of appreciation.
In addition, every Monday, Helle sends thank-you cards to local veterans whose stories have been profiled in The Vindicator and encloses copies of the articles inside them.
Last spring, she also read a Vindicator story about an Army soldier named Cpl. Ralph S. Boughman, who was from Union, S.C., and was killed during the Korean War at age 21 after having been reported missing in action Dec. 2, 1950. He was a member of Company B, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division.
Following a battle in which Chinese forces attacked his unit near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, Boughman’s remains were unable to be recovered. Earlier this year, however, the Defense POW / MIA Accounting Agency announced that he had been accounted for in April 2020, and he was returned to Union after more than 70 years.
Soon after, she located some of his family members and sent the article to them. After a nephew of Boughman’s received it, he responded by sending family photographs to Helle.
The two also had phone conversations about the late Pfc. Donald M. Dyce, who was killed in action during the Vietnam War on Oct. 26, 1969, at age 20. The Army soldier was one of 100 Mahoning County military personnel killed in the war and who are honored during the annual Laying of the Roses ceremony in Youngstown’s Central Square.
“I found it very touching, and I sent it to them,” she said nonchalantly.
Dyce also was a close friend of Helle’s husband, Larry, dating to when they attended high school together, she continued.
Helle’s efforts on behalf of those who served the nation don’t stop with cards, though. She also has bought and sent them clothing as well as hats and pairs of shoes and boots.
In addition, Helle is a member of the Mahoning Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, an apolitical, nonprofit volunteer women’s service organization.
The DAR chapter is in the beginning stages of assembling Christmas gift bags that will benefit the Carl Nunziato Youngstown VA Clinic on Belmont Avenue. The bags will contain items such as shampoo and conditioner, toothpaste, pairs of socks, dental floss, brushes and combs, hand sanitizer and razors.
Helle downplays the significance of her actions, but is quick to express her appreciation for veterans’ sacrifices and contributions to the nation. She also is aware of the high rates of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder among that population, compounded by the fact that some are reluctant to seek professional intervention.
“It’s hard to ask for help, sometimes,” she said, adding that local resources are available for veterans who are suffering.
Helle also credited her mother, Irene Houk, who “instilled in me to always show appreciation to people, and write thank-yous,” she continued.
Helle and her husband have a son, Donnie Helle; two daughters, Beth Catlos and Miriam Maughan; and eight grandchildren.
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