Raised on a farm in Loose Creek as the second oldest of three sisters, Lillian Hentges stated no one in her immediate family served in the military.
Years later, however, after marrying a soldier who earned a Purple Heart for wounds received in Vietnam, she gained an enduring appreciation for the sacrifice of veterans and has chosen to honor their legacy through the VFW Auxiliary.
Attending Fatima High School, the former Lillian Haslag said her father instilled in her an unwavering work ethic at an early age. When only 16 years old, she began working at a factory that made trousers in Linn.
"I worked there for three years, and in 1966, I went to work at Von Hoffman in Jefferson City," she said. "In 1969, I met Don (Hentges) on a blind date after he returned from his service with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, and we got married at the church in Loose Creek in 1970."
The couple's first child was born in 1971, and Lillian soon chose to leave Von Hoffman and became a stay-at-home mother for the next 12 years. She and her husband eventually became parents to four children — three girls and one boy. In 1983, after her youngest started school, she decided to return to the workforce.
She was hired at House of Bargains in Apache Flats and not only helped as a cashier, but fulfilled a long-held interest by gaining experience working in the fabrics department.
Soon, a manager at So-Fro Fabrics at the Capital Mall offered her a position as an assistant manager and Hentges accepted, working there the next several years until the entire chain of stores closed.
During this timeframe, her husband had become commander of the VFW Post in St. Martins. Lillian thought it was an ideal time for her to visit the post and learn more about what the auxiliary was doing.
"Initially, I wasn't very active in the auxiliary but soon became the chaplain and was then chosen for other offices and chairmanships," she said. "I became junior vice president, senior vice president and eventually president of the post auxiliary."
Aside from her voluntary endeavors with the auxiliary, she went to work as a stocker at Walmart and later moved to the store's fabric department. After eight years, the department was closed, and she began stocking shelves on the overnight shift. In the end, she spent 18 years employed by Walmart, the last five as a cashier.
These days, she enjoys working part-time at Specialty Quilts in Jefferson City and spends one day a week assisting a group of quilters in California, who stitch quilts to be presented to veterans as part of the Quilts of Valor program. In recent years, she has been able to contribute more time to the auxiliary and its programs.
"I have attended a lot of conventions and meetings for the VFW auxiliary and learned much about their different programs — and really enjoyed it," she said. "Unfortunately, the auxiliary at Post 35 in St. Martins kind of fell apart years ago and was disbanded, so I moved my membership to Post 1003 in Jefferson City to remain involved."
Both VFW posts would suffer from declining membership and made the decision to merge in 2013. The VFW home in downtown Jefferson City shuttered and now exists as VFW Post 1003 in St. Martins
"When it was Post 35 here in St. Martins, I was president of the auxiliary four different years," she said. "After consolidation of the two posts, when St. Martins became Post 1003, I have been auxiliary president three different years."
The auxiliary remains active following the consolidation of posts. As a member, Hentges said she embraces multiple opportunities to provide support to veterans and their families at the local level.
"Here at the post, the auxiliary has donated to the Mid-Missouri Food Pantry, which provides food and other necessities to veterans and their families in need," she said. "But on a personal level, I have most enjoyed working in the legislative program."
Through this program, Hentges and other members contact their representatives and senators to encourage support of legislation that benefits veterans, military members and their families. One recent outreach included the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019, extending the presumption of herbicide exposure to veterans who served in the offshore waters of Vietnam.
The comfort of veterans residing in the various Missouri Veterans Homes is also a focus of the auxiliary, whose members collect items such as socks, underwear and sweats to donate to the veterans residing in these facilities.
"Many of us also participate in local Memorial Day and Veterans Day programs as well," she said. "And one of the most rewarding experiences has been visiting local schools to hand out flags to promote patriotism and explain to the students about the sacrifices of veterans."
She added, "We stress to the students that this is why they have the freedoms to attend school and pursue the career they want, because veterans fought for those rights."
Having listened many times to her husband share his personal story of losing a close friend in combat during the Vietnam War, combined with her own experiences supporting programs that contribute to the betterment of the lives of local veterans, motivates her continued involvement in the auxiliary.
"I have gained a greater admiration for those willing to put their lives on the line for very little pay to defend our country," she said. "The service of my husband has really inspired me on a personal level, and serves as a reminder that it's not movie stars or sports celebrities who are heroes, but those who volunteer for our armed forces."
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.