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Trio of Nonagenarian Volunteers Bring Wisdom, Service to Palm Springs USO

Thursday, April 25, 2013

By Joseph Andrew Lee 

In the winter of 1942, “The Greatest Generation” was earning its stripes.

A 21-year-old German Jewish refugee and her family were carving out a new life in Bronx, N.Y., far from their home in Berlin. Grateful to the American soldiers who rescued her family, Rachel Damski made it her personal mission to plant a kiss on the forehead of each soldier she would meet for the rest of her life.

At the same time, a 21-year-old Marine named Ray Schum was assaulting a beach alongside Louis B. “Chesty” Puller on the island of Guadalcanal. Schum’s backbone would cast the mold for generations of enlisted Marines. He would prove to be a new type of leader who, in fact, deserved a new type of rank: sergeant major.

A 21-year-old Army civil service employee named Dory Dunn was earning her stripes as one of the first USO Girls. She took on the role in 1941 – the same year the USO was created – in her hometown in New Mexico and served throughout the second World War. Every Saturday night, she and a cadre of women in evening gowns were tasked with the same mission the USO still carries out today: lifting troops’ spirits.

"[Rachel] instantly lifts the mood in any room,” said Palm Springs USO Center Manager Stephanie Navarro. “Ray reminds us all of the proud heritage of the United States Marine Corps and truly personifies the ethos of ‘Once a Marine, always a Marine!’ and Dory usually sits at the front desk and answers the phone. She also loves going to various lunches and feels that she is a great [fundraiser]. ... People love her."

This year, Dunn, Schum and Damski all turn 92 and though they all currently volunteer their time at the same USO center in Palm Springs, Calif., they do it for three different reasons.

For Damski, it’s about delivering love and thanks. Her brother and husband both served in the military to repay their perceived debt to America, but she shows her affection in a different way.

“It’s a kiss-fest around here,” she said, giggling. “I kiss every one of them, but I can get away with that because I’m an old woman and I’m a loving person. I just feel blessed. I thank them profusely. I try to make their lives as comfortable as possible.”

Marine Sgt. Maj. (Ret.) Ray Schum is a favorite of the young Marines who visit the USO center at Palm Springs International Airport. Schum holds court as the acting sergeant major of the Palm Springs USO. His post is located in the canteen area, where he can be found two days a week reveling visitors in stories of war in the Pacific. For most young Marines passing through, it’s the first social interaction they’ve had with a sergeant major. Schum sits tall in his wheelchair dressed sharply in his service charlies, passing on wisdom from his military career.

“When I tell them I knew Chesty Puller, they probably think, ‘Oh my God, I’ve talked to Jesus,’” said Schum with a chuckle. “I feel good about the fact that I’ve had a favorable influence on a large number of young Marines.”

Schum recently began spending more time at the USO after his wife of 66 years passed on. Few things bring a smile to his face faster than fellow Marines.

“I’m not always sure they follow my advice, but they always left feeling good about themselves — I’m sure of that — and that’s what gives me job satisfaction.”

If Schum is the poster boy Marine, then Dory Dunn is the poster USO Girl.

“I’ve always been a little headstrong … pushy, you might say, but I will never be done helping our service men and women,” she said, “because there is always something more they could use — something more I can do.”

As a 21-year-old, Dunn had a lot of duties on base as an Army accountant as well as a USO Girl. There was a lot to do, but in those days everyone looked forward to Saturday night USO dances.

“There were 10 of us sorority girls and they would send in buses and we would get all dressed up and go dance with the service men,” she said. “It was always a long evening gown, that's what girls wore in those days. You could dance with us, have coffee and donuts with us but you couldn't go out with us. We went by bus and came home by bus. We couldn't even go outside the building with them. We were very well chaperoned.”

More than 70 years later, Dunn continues to volunteer for the USO every Thursday and Sunday, where she takes her responsibilities for troop morale very seriously.

“These boys travel a long way to get here to the desert,” Dunn said. “Sometimes they have upwards of five connecting flights before they arrive, and we need to make sure they have had something to eat. I make sure their needs are met because I’m of the opinion that these boys deserve nothing but the best.”

Dunn, Schum and Damski are among the last of “The Greatest Generation,” but with each day they volunteer, they demonstrate the content of their character and the true number of their stripes.

“We can all do more than we ever thought we could, if we just would,” Schum said.

* * *

Photo caption: USO volunteers Rachel Damski and Marine Sgt. Maj. (Ret.) Ray Schum share a moment at Damski's birthday party in March at the USO center in the Palm Springs (Calif.) International Airport. 

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