Mount Pleasant man’s plaques draw stories from military veterans in hospice care
Ed Mihalacki approached the elderly man with a smile, drawing up a chair and making eye contact.
He came to Moorehead Place, a senior living community in Indiana County, to present Marshall Thomas, 90, with a plaque.
Mihalacki, 68, a Vietnam War veteran, makes plaques for veterans in hospice care. He and his wife, Janetta, retired teachers, deliver the plaques to veterans receiving AseraCare Hospice services.
Thomas eagerly eyed the plaque, which Mihalacki made at the Laurel Mountain Laser engraving business he operates out of his Mt. Pleasant Township home.
It read: “United States Army. Marshall Thomas.”
“The only way you get it is if you tell me a story,” Mihalacki said.
It’s his standard opening line, one he’s used numerous times in the last year while making similar presentations.
It worked its usual magic. As members of Thomas’ family and staff members listened, the older man opened up, veteran to veteran, and recalled a harrowing transport by ship.
Thomas was drafted during the Korean War in 1951 at the age of 26, shortly after marrying his wife, the late Frances Thomas.
He did not serve on active duty but was overseas for one year with the 169th Infantry Regiment, earning the rank of corporal.
His son Rodney was not able to attend the presentation. But his sons Curt and Randy listened intently as their dad told his tale.
Thomas recalled the ship sailing through the end of a hurricane.
“The ship … would come down, and you would swear it was going to bust in two,” Thomas said. “I had a buddy that was in the bunk right above me. I got up. I knew I was sick before I ever got up. I grabbed my helmet, and of course, I started puking.”
With his audience chuckling, he continued.
“After the hurricane, where did the ship end up?” he said. “Munich. The reason they canceled the orders to go to Korea was because the Russians were sort of acting up over there, and they thought they was going to try and do what Hitler done.”
Sitting straight-backed in his wheelchair, he locked eyes with Mihalacki, and the two easily lapsed into military lingo.
When Thomas used the term “pillboxes,” Mihalacki explained the GI nickname referred to concrete bunkers the Germans built, equipped with peepholes for firing weapons.
“We were fortunate. We got sent there instead of Korea. I lost a lot of buddies (who served in Korea),” Thomas said.
Mihalacki comforted Thomas when he started to choke up Then, satisfied that Thomas had held up his end of the deal, Mihalacki presented him with the plaque.
“I spent most of my life after Vietnam as a shop teacher, and I make these for veterans. They said, ‘Would you make one for Marshall?’ And I said yes. This is for you, and you only owe me $1,000,” he joked.
Without missing a beat, Thomas pointed at his son, causing those in the room to erupt in laughter.
“I appreciate your story. Thank you for your service,” Mihalacki said.
Curt Thomas said family members had heard the story his father told before.
“But it was meaningful to hear it again, just in that setting. You can vividly picture it. It puts you in his shoes,” he said.
His father, a former carpenter, appreciated the wooden plaque and was impressed with the laser technology.
“It’s in his room, across from where he sits,” Curt Thomas said.
AseraCare Executive Director Danielle Cimba, a relative of Mihalacki’s, was familiar with the military-themed products he creates.
The hospice partners with the national We Honor Veterans program to provide services specific to veterans’ needs, Cimba said, such as those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
A veteran who may have thought his family was uninterested, or who kept his feelings about his service to himself, can find liberation in the unburdening process that comes with the services, Mihalacki said.
“At one time in their lives they were considered heroes. They were young once and strong and brave. … Life intervened. For a few minutes in their lives, they have become the center of attention again,” he said.
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or [email protected].