A single red flower held out to a stranger on Memorial Day has for nearly a century been a charming but powerful reminder of the sacrifices made by men and women in the armed forces.
Since 1922, ladies auxiliary groups from the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and the American Legion have been exchanging small “Buddy” Poppies—artificial flowers assembled by disabled and needy veterans—for donations. The simple act has funded outreaches for veterans and their families, bringing hope to those who have given their all for their country.
Each May, the American Legion Post 419 Ladies Auxiliary of East Hampton, the Ladies Auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Dunes Post 7009 of Southampton, and the Ladies Auxiliary of American Legion Hand-Aldrich Post 924 of Hampton Bays, and others, are busy as bees collecting money for their cause.
According to Post 419 Ladies Auxiliary Member Terry Hickey, their poppy canisters first appear in East Hampton businesses leading up to Memorial Day services. At businesses like East Hampton Business Service in the village, Brent’s General Store in Amagansett and points farther east, the ladies place empty cans at counters and rely on the generosity of customers to help veterans.
“We have a core group of worker bees,” Ms. Hickey said. “One year, we had a really terrific year. We sat by the IGA and brought in about $2,500. But that was many years ago.”
Depending on the placement of the cans and the determination of the ladies, who often wear poppy-decorated hats, donations can be overwhelming.
In just one month last year, the Ladies Auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Dunes Post 7009 of Southampton raised more than they had ever raised in one Buddy Poppy drive—$1,700, according to Ruth Plock, the auxiliary’s president. The group was given six awards from the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of New York last June for its efforts.
Ms. Plock said they place cans all over, from Schmidt’s Market to Hildreth’s Home Store, Souththrifty Drug and numerous doctors’ offices. She has been very fortunate in recent years, however, while sitting outside of the Southampton Waldbaum’s supermarket. “For two years in a row, a man comes out of Waldbaum’s in a hurry, and he gets out his wallet and says, ‘Oh, what the hell,’ and pulls out a $100 bill,” she said. “I don’t know his name—and all of a sudden, he’s gone.”
Unlike the other two groups, the Hampton Bays Hand-Aldrich Post 924 ladies group collect donations individually for the most part, since leaving cans at stores in town has not proven effective, according to Sharon McGann, who runs the group’s Buddy Poppy drive. Last year the women raised more than $400.
Of course, the ladies pick up most of their donations on Memorial Day, when the community is out in full for memorial services. With a dollar here and a $10 bill there, it add up quick, and it all goes right back to veterans and each respective community.
The VFW National Home for Children, Canine Companions for Independence, Dominican Sisters Family Health Services, Southampton Hospital Foundation Fund, Southampton Volunteer Ambulance, Southampton-based charity Human Resources, and the Long Island State Veterans’ Home in Stony Brook, are often recipients of Buddy Poppy donations. Ms. Plock said additionally, the Dunes Post gives money to a dinner program for homeless veterans and sponsors bingo night at the Stony Brook veterans home. Ms. McGann, of the Hand-Aldrich Post 924 of Hampton Bays, said her group has also thrown baby showers for women whose husbands are deployed out of Westhampton Beach.
“This is important, because the poppies are made by veterans and in support of veterans—that’s what the Legion is all about,” she said. “Sometimes I wonder—walking around the parade, I see people giving donations, and I don’t know if they’re doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, and if they truly understand what the poppy is all about.”
The bright red poppy is meant to evoke the Colonel John McCrae poem “In Flanders Fields,” about the servicemen who fought and died in France during World War I: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row/That mark our place; and in the sky/The larks, still bravely singing, fly/Scarce heard amid the guns below.”
Since the poem’s release in 1915, the poppy has become recognized as a memorial flower in countries throughout the world.
Each year, some 14 million poppies are distributed before Memorial Day and Veterans Day, and more than $11 million is raised.
“It’s about giving back and bringing back awareness of what people have given up for us,” Ms. McGann said.