POCATELLO — Ensuring hundreds of underprivileged children don’t go without a toy on Christmas and working countless unpaid hours securing various benefits for veterans in need are just some of the top priorities for Pocatello veteran Phillip Hartman and his wife Melissa.
Phillip, who runs the local Toys for Tots program, and Melissa, the Bannock County veterans service coordinator, each volunteer hundreds of hours each year bettering the lives of Southeast Idaho veterans. And on Monday, the Pocatello couple were two of seven veterans or veteran volunteers to receive the 2019 Spirit of Freedom: Idaho Veterans Service Award during an afternoon ceremony at the Veterans Home on Alvin Ricken Drive in Pocatello.
“We didn’t even know we were being honored until we showed up today,” Melissa said. “I come to the Veterans Home every Veterans Day because this program is my favorite. And when I got here, they told me I had to sit up front because I was being honored. I immediately called Phillip and told him to get up here. But to receive the honor together is so awesome. We volunteer with many veteran volunteer groups and it’s nice to receive recognition once in a while.”
Phillip added, “I’m absolutely shocked and honored to receive the award.”
The Hartmans have been married for 20 years, yet their admiration for veterans started well before they exchanged vows. Phillip, who was born in Sugar City, served in the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps during the 1980s and 1990s. He served in Desert Storm and Desert Shield, earning recognition for his honorable service, including the National Defense Service Medal and Kuwait Liberation Medal — Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, Melissa worked at a local daycare and remembers tying yellow ribbons to signify support for deployed soldiers in Phillip’s name to trees, poles and signposts. Little did she know that one day she would end up marrying Phillip.
“When Phillip was out in the desert I can remember tying yellow ribbons to a tree for him every day he was gone,” Melissa said. “When he got back and we became connected, we only dated for six weeks before we got married. We were an instant hit.”
Following his return to civilian life, Phillip took up work as a diesel mechanic. Melissa’s career serving veterans began after she was laid off from work at the Heinz factory in Pocatello. She first started working at the Veteran’s Home before she became the county veteran services coordinator.
In addition to his time in the military, Phillip was honored Monday for organizing the local Toys for Tots program and serving in the Marine Corps League. He also volunteers for Veterans Treatment Court and the Field of Heroes.
The Veteran Student Services Center at Idaho State University nominated Phillip for the award, and director of the center, Todd Johnson, had nothing but kind words to say about Phillip’s countless winters of generosity.
“Phillip is the face of Toys for Tots around here,” Johnson said. “He dedicates every November, December and January to the program. Without him, there would be hundreds, if not thousands, of kids without a present to open on Christmas. He really does put his money where his mouth is, going above and beyond for three months of his life.”
Fellow 2019 Spirit of Freedom award recipient, Grace Jacobson, who is the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 3 commander, nominated Melissa for the award. Melissa was recognized for “putting her heart and soul into serving veterans and the military community through her work as a county veterans services officer and as a volunteer.”
“Melissa truly is the ultimate veteran spouse,” Johnson said. “When she is taking care of veterans, getting them the services they need or even getting them to the appointments they need to go to, they are an extension of her own family in her mind. What is so amazing about Melissa is she thinks so strategically about getting these veterans what they need and documenting it in the proper way so that there are zero questions about their needs. That is a true talent and one of the things I love most about Melissa.”
In addition to assisting with the annual Field of Heroes memorial with her husband, Melissa has also contributed her time assisting with numerous projects, including Military and Veteran Appreciation Day, the Veterans Treatment Court and others.
While Melissa takes pride in doing her job, as well as assisting with veterans events, spending an ample amount of her own time with veterans at the Veterans Home, learning about history from the men and women who made it, is the most rewarding part of her efforts on behalf of veterans, she said.
From playing blackjack for hours with a nurse who treated soldiers during the attack of Pearl Harbor, to seeing photos and hearing the story from a member of the U.S. Army who was on Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima before the American flag was raised, Melissa takes the most pride in volunteering her time at the Pocatello Veterans Home, hearing the history of this nation directly from those who had a part in writing it.
“Being here and getting to know the veterans who live here is amazing,” Melissa said. “You can’t even grasp the concept of knowing what it is like to listen to history until you actually hear it.”
Seven Pocatello 2019 Spirit of Freedom: Idaho Veterans Service Award recipients
Seven veterans and veteran volunteers to received the 2019 Spirit of Freedom: Idaho Veterans Service Award on Monday afternoon during a ceremony at the Pocatello Veterans Home. Back row from left are Gene Womack, Phillip Hartman, Melissa Hartman, Grace Jacobson and Carrie Leavitt. Front row from left are Larry Payne and Phillip Catorena.
Shelbie Harris/Idaho State Journal
Melissa continued, “The men and women who live here can feed that history right to you. You’re not reading it from a book, or getting someone’s interpretation of it, you’re hearing it from the men and women who were there and it doesn’t get any better than that.”
In addition to the Hartmans and Jacobson, the other four 2019 Spirit of Freedom: Idaho Veterans Service Award recipients in Pocatello included Phillip Catorena, Larry Payne, Carrie Leavitt and Gene Womack.
“The Spirit of Freedom Awards recognize veterans and volunteers who set an example of leadership and service in our communities and across our state,” said U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo. “Time and time again, I meet veterans who not only gave tremendously in service to our nation, but also continue to give their time, talents and treasure to supporting their fellow veterans and others. I welcome the opportunity to express gratitude for this exemplary service by honoring these patriots who have served and continue to serve our country, Idaho and their local communities.”