Rose Hirth, a volunteer at USO Delaware, was on a mission one blustery fall evening at Dover Air Force Base when a blast from her past marched through the door and reminded her of a promise she had made: She would be buried in her roller skates.
USO volunteers take on many missions. At Dover, the mission often involves interacting with families of those who have been killed in action. These strangers often become family, and that bond usually starts with one warm-hearted USO volunteer.
Since the USO’s Families of the Fallen Program began in December 2010, the USO has supported more than 3,000 family members who have traveled through airports and stayed at the Fisher House for Families of the Fallen. Many USO staff and volunteers travel alongside these families and work with airport security officials, airlines and even vehicle rental companies to help smooth transportation logistics to Dover and then on to the fallen hero’s final destination.
On that fall evening, a military escort and a chaplain walked through the door of the USO. Hirth rubbed the two pins — a cross and an angel — she keeps immediately over her heart. The angel is a prayer for those in harm’s way, and the cross is a prayer for our fallen.
The young escort wearing his dress uniform was escorting the remains of his good friend and compatriot. Hirth took one look at him and a name came to mind.
“Oh my gosh, it’s Josh Ward,” she said to herself.
Hirth sat down and began to get to know the young man she was sure she already knew. She found out he was from Williamstown, N.J., and his family, in fact, was into roller skating.
After a few more questions, Hirth confirmed that the young soldier strongly resembled his grandfather. And after a little more conversation, she discovered the soldier’s grandfather died a few years back. Which led to perhaps the eeriest question of all.
“Was he buried with his roller skates on?” she asked
The escort looked puzzled. How did she know?
“Because your grandfather and I met by chance nearly 50 years ago,” Hirth said.
It was 1961 when Hirth and Josh Ward both signed up with different partners for a roller skate dance competition.
“I don’t even remember what the first place prize was,” Hirth said. “It was probably unbelievable but I didn’t care. I had my heart set on the second place prize: a set of roller skates worth $125. That was a pretty expensive pair of skates in 1961, so I was really upset when my partner didn’t show.”
That’s when she met Josh Ward.
“Apparently something happened to his partner, too, so by total chance we were teamed up together,” she said. “We really wanted those skates but we only had a quick moment to rehearse.”
Hirth and Ward came up with a brand new routine on the spot and it hit the mark. They took second place and won the $125 roller skates.
“I’ve taken care of those roller skates all these years and they are still in A-1 condition,” she said. “Every once in a while I’ll take them out and revisit that same rink and skate for ‘one last time.’”
The prize and the chance encounter were so valuable to them both that Hirth and Ward made a promise that they would never lose their skates. In fact, they swore to be buried in them.
“What’s amazing about this story,” she explained, “is that there really are no strangers in this world. Just people we haven’t met yet.
“It’s not a coincidence Josh was there for me that night, and it’s not a coincidence his grandson came through here,” Hirth said as she touched the pins over her heart. “Certain people are placed in your life for a reason. I always look at these kids as my kids because sometimes all it takes is a chance occurrence to turn a total stranger into family.”
–Story by Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer