Henry Barba has seen it all. The 107-year-old Californian has lived through two pandemics, the Great Depression and his National Guard service in World War II. Now, a local non-profit is thanking him and celebrating his long life with a parade of well-wishers.
Welcome Home Military Heroes, a veterans non-profit on California’s Central Coast, organized a “veteran vehicle salute” Saturday in San Luis Obispo to celebrate Barba’s 107th birthday. Volunteers drove by Barba’s house with lights flashing and flags waving to greet the centenarian while event organizers collected cards.
It’s not the group’s first time around the block, so to speak. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Welcome Home Military Heroes has arranged 34 vehicle salutes to celebrate veterans and show gratitude for their service. Saturday’s event drew about 50 vehicles, and past salutes have drawn more than 200 cars, motorcycles, police cruisers and fire trucks, Robert Tolan Jr., the non-profit’s vice president, told Military Times.
Welcome Home Military Heroes began in 2010, when a group of veterans at his church told Robert Tolan Sr. they’d never been welcomed back from service overseas. Tolan, a Navy veteran himself, and his family were deeply bothered by this and decided to begin a non-profit to ensure every veteran in their community would be warmly welcomed home.
Tolan Jr. was only 16 when his parents founded Welcome Home Military Heroes. He recalled his involvement with the organization inspiring him to begin his own service in the Army, eventually deploying to Afghanistan as a cavalry scout.
“I didn’t feel right doing this without serving the military, so I went into the Army and served my time,” Tolan Jr. said.
When he returned, he worked to strengthen his family’s non-profit, which has now served more than 1,400 veterans in the Central Coast area with welcomes, funeral escorts and care packages. The group also replaces worn or stolen flags in the area and collects Christmas gifts for veterans in need each year.
“Our organization doesn’t survive without our volunteers,” Tolan Jr. said. “For them to come out and do four events in one day … it’s amazing what these guys and these women will do.”
In the past, Tolan Jr. said, volunteers have driven more than 150 miles between vehicle salutes in a single day. The group doesn’t just use their vehicle salutes to show appreciation for aging veterans but has also welcomed back sailors and Marines returning from deployments during the pandemic.
“I have a feeling this will be something that will probably never end, even after the pandemic,” Tolan Jr. said of the vehicle salutes. “I think this is becoming a huge success, and people are absolutely loving it.”
Barba, who enlisted in the California National Guard’s Searchlight Battalion — 250th Coast Artillery, Battery G, in 1941, was activated as part of a force to defend Kodiak, Alaska, against a possible Japanese invasion. The Japanese had already occupied a portion of the Aleutian Islands at the time.
His assignments while there included cooking, cleaning and guard duty, local news reported. The battery’s entire encampment was designed as a decoy to deter the possibility of a Japanese attack. Fake airplanes and artillery outposts were made of wood and paper, and for a while the Guardsmen were armed with nothing more than mock rifles.
When Barba’s unit finally received real rifles, Tolan Jr. said, Barba didn’t even know how to use one since he’d been rushed through basic training so quickly.
Along with birthday cards from volunteers, Barba and other veterans who are honored with vehicle salutes receive a challenge coin, shirt and certificate of appreciation for their service.
“They always tell us, ‘I don’t deserve this, I lived,’ but they do deserve it. They earned it and they never even got welcomed home when they came back, especially our Vietnam vets,” Tolan Jr. said. “So, for us to finally give it to them all these years later means a lot, not just to us but to the veterans.”
Harm Venhuizen is an editorial intern at Military Times. He is studying political science and philosophy at Calvin University, where he's also in the Army ROTC program.