For Susan Wells, every veteran is a star.
And a star goes to every veteran.
Troy resident Wells, who founded the Capital Region's Stars for Our Troops charitable group in 2010, was honored Thursday at the Brown School's annual Veterans Day ceremony.
For several years, the Schenectady private school has celebrated local veterans and organizations that honor veterans. During the morning program, the following were recognized:
- John and Karen McKenna, whose son Capt. John McKenna IV was killed in Iraq.
- Gold Star Mother Kimberley Vandenburg, whose son Nathan lost his life.
- Blue Star Mothers, women whose sons or daughters currently serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Wells, 70, uses old, faded flags for her good deeds. She and others cut embroidered stars from flags that no longer fly. The five-pointed symbols, complete with blue backing, are given to veterans with a note that reads:
"I am part of an American flag that has flown over the USA. I can no longer fly. The sun and wind caused me to become tattered and torn. Please carry me as a reminder that you are not forgotten."
Wells believes the recovery and re-purposing idea started in Florida around 2005. The project appealed to Wells' patriotic passion, and she passed out her first stars in September 2010. Veterans at Albany International Airport traveling to Washington on an honor flight were her first recipients.
"There were Patriot Guard riders and American Legion riders, motorcycle riders escorting the veterans to the airport," Wells said. "They were the ones who were impressed with the stars and the messages.
"They were the Vietnam veterans," Wells added, "and two of them cried on my shoulder that it was the first 'Thank you' they had ever received since they came back from Vietnam."
Wells, who used to work in the air freight and trucking industries in California, prefers 3-by-5 flags for her work. Folks send her all types.
"Some people apologize because they're faded, which we love," Wells said. "The stars need to be embroidered and they can't be any bigger than 2 inches across; they have to fit inside a small pouch."
Some stars on flags mailed to Stars For Our Troops are too big. Wells also can't use them they are printed, or made in another country. These banners are sent to another organization for a dignified "retirement."
Wells has given away 98,000 stars this year. Since 2010, Stars For Our Troops has presented 550,000 stars. Veterans, firefighters, police officers and emergency first responders are all on the star lists.
"For medics, I've made sure they get extra stars," Wells said. "I've said, 'Please don't use these up fast.' I wanted them to have extras so when someone came in from battle they would have something from home.
"Someone wrote me afterward," Wells also said. "One guy came in who was really in a bad way and they gave him a star and it was enough to keep him going. They were able to keep him alive."
Wells said the star field — called a canton — is separated from the flag. Once the canton is separated from the stars and stripes, the fabric is no longer considered a flag. Still, discarded pieces are sent to groups that properly dispose of flags.
Donations help with mailing costs. "We've spent over $2,000 this year on postage," Wells said. "That's donations. The first couple of years it was out of my Social Security check."
Wells, who holds three "star parties" each month, has worked on stars with Brown School students this year. Students handed out pentagon-shaped mementos to veterans at Thursday's ceremony.
"I've had Brownies and Daisies in Girl Scout troops who are doing the stars," Wells said. "They run over to their moms, say, 'Give me a star,' and then find a soldier and give them the star. They say, 'Thank you for your service.'
"It's wonderful to see them understanding the importance of these soldiers."
Flags can be mailed to Stars For Our Troops, a non-profit organization exempt from some federal income taxes, to Wells at 715 Columbia Turnpike, East Greenbush, 12061.