VIP (Very Important Patients) Salute
The VIP Salute began in 1966, when Carmella worked for Vice President Hubert Humphrey. She organized an Armed Forces Day Party for wounded troops at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
The officers at Walter Reed Army Hospital asked her if she could do the same there. “At Walter Reed, I went through the amputee ward,” recalled Carmella. “It’s one thing to read about it, but another thing to actually see these 19-year-old young men with missing arms and legs. I asked them who they would most like to have visit them and they said, “pretty girls and athletes.”
Carmella soon recruited her friends to visit the patients. She contacted Major League Baseball (MLB) teams when they came to town to play the Washington Senators. The first team to come to the hospital was the New York Yankees, led by Mickey Mantle on July 1, 1967. NGL’s President at that time was baseball legend Ted Williams, manager of the Washington Senators, he and his team would also visit the hospitalized troops.
Thus VIP was born. In 1969, NGL organized a National VIP Day and invited President Nixon, as well as many star athletes, celebrities, and dignitaries throughout the country to visit Military and VA hospitals.
“The athletes’ response was fantastic,” states Carmella. “They wanted to do more. In 1970, we arranged a special party at Walter Reed. The Redskins, The Baltimore Colts led by Johnny Unitas, the Baltimore Bullets, and NASCAR Champ Mark Donahue would all attend. She asked the patients who else they would most like to meet, and they said Joe Namath of the New York Jets. She knew it was a million to one shot, and it was only three days before the party, but she called John Free, the business manager of the Jets, and asked him if Joe would come.
Joe flew down for the party as a complete surprise and spent several hours visiting the patients. “One soldier was having a very serious operation the next day,” recalled Carmella. “He especially wanted to meet Joe, who visited him. The doctors felt the visit from Joe gave the soldier a tremendous boost and that was the best medicine he could have received.”
In 1974, VIP became the National Salute to Hospitalized Veterans with the return of the POWs in Vietnam. It became an official Veterans Administration program in 1979 through the order of then VA Administrator Max Cleland, a member of NGL’s National Advisory Board at the time. Celebrity visits to VA hospitals across the country are made annually in February. Athletes, entertainers, and dignitaries have joined in this effort and a number of elementary school children have written letters and sent gifts as part of the observance. The program is held annually in the 152 VA hospitals across the country.