Carroll Lutheran Village resident Sondra Sarles met President Barack Obama on May 30 while attending the White House's annual Memorial Day breakfast in honor of Gold Star families and other special interest groups. The meeting, Sarles said, tops the list of memorable things she's done.
But meeting other orphans of war has been important to her, too. Sarles, 71, was watching a Memorial Day news broadcast about 10 years ago when she heard about the American War Orphans Network, or AWON, and immediately went online to join.
"AWON was formed in 1991 by a woman named Ann Mix," Sarles said. "There were 183,000 children left fatherless by World War II. Everybody just moved on with their lives and nobody ever talked about our fathers. There were no support groups for people back then."
Sarles said that since joining AWON she's learned that many children found rough lives after losing their father in WWII. She was 5 months old when her 38-year-old father, Lt. Col. George Sarles, was killed in 1945, the commanding officer of a squadron whose plane was shot down in the Philippines. She had two brothers who were 7 and 9 years old at the time.
"It wasn't good," Sarles said. "My mother became an alcoholic, if she wasn't already one before I was born. We struggled on our own for five years in California.
Sarles said she was 5 years old when family in Mt. Kisco, New York, sent money to bring them east.
"We were on our way east on a Greyhound bus and we had to stop in Chicago to spend the night," Sarles said. "My mother left us in the motel room for three days. My brothers took care of me, but about three days later the hotel manager realized there were these three children who were kind of wandering around with no adult supervision."
After arriving in New York state — she still isn't completely sure of how she was delivered there — Sarles said the boys were sent to live with a single aunt while Sarles went to live with her uncle and his wife. When her uncle divorced eight years later she moved to join her brothers.
"Many [AWON] members had similar childhoods," Sarles said. "I feel it is because of this that we are attracted to this organization."
Sarles said she took the Metro to Washington on the day before her White House adventure, staying at the Hotel Washington. That evening she met fellow AWON member Penny Bernstein for dinner.
"You know, there is an instant bond," she said of meeting Bernstein. "It is amazing. You just feel like you feel toward a sister or a brother."
The next morning she met Bernstein and three more AWON members — Ken Underwood, Roberta Nolan and J. Lee Mathis — at the hotel and they walked to the White House, just two blocks away.
Nolan — whose father was captured in the Battle of the Bulge when she was just 5 weeks old — said others can't even imagine what the bonding experience is like.
"I hope to stay in touch with Sondra and my other companions from that day," Nolan said. "It was a unique experience. We shared a moment in time."
Sarles said they stood in line, going through two security checkpoints on their way to a huge reception area where the 150 to 175 attendees could enjoy juice or water while chatting. At 8 a.m. they opened the buffet.
"It was this gorgeous layout on a mahogany table — very elegant," Sarles said. "Each table had a host or hostess with an important title or position. Ours was the second in command of the Navy."
As the breakfast ended, Sarles said they were invited to meet President Obama in the next room over. She believes her words to the president netted a group photo opportunity for her and her AWON companions.
"When I got up there I stood on my tiptoes — because he is very tall — and I said, 'I am a member of the American War Orphans Network. There are five of us here," Sarles said. "Our fathers were all killed in World War II.' And he said, 'Where are the others?' He was so gracious."
Sarles said one member had been through the line and two were waiting to come in. The president immediately called them all together for a group photo by the White House photographer.
Afterward, everyone boarded a charter bus. A police escort led them to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There they witnessed the president's laying of the wreath before being escorted to reserved seating in the colonnade, just two sections away from where the president would speak.
"When he gave his Memorial Day speech he talked about people who had lost their lives this past year for our country," Sarles said. "There were prayers and we sang the national anthem. The Marine Corp band was there. In the section we were sitting in there was a woman with a small child and an older woman with her. I was thinking, there is something very special about this lady."
Sarles said her feeling was correct. The president ended his speech by speaking of Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, the highly decorated soldier killed in October 2015 during a raid on a prison controlled by the Islamic State group in Iraq.
"The president announced that the woman was his wife with their son," Sarles said. "We sat there and tears were rolling down our cheeks. At the end, we stepped over and introduced ourselves."
Sarles said they were invited to lay a wreath to represent AWON. In deciding to do this they knew they would miss the noon bus back to the White House and planned to take the Metro. Then, Ed Peter, the AWON member who brought the wreath, offered to drive them back to the hotel, completing a lifetime memory for Sarles and her new friends.
"I felt so honored and, more importantly, I felt my father was so honored," Nolan said of the experience. "I also felt so humbled. I was in the presence of greatness, not just the medals, brass stars and dress uniforms. I was humbled by the greatness of my AWON companions with whom I formed an instant bond."
Sarles agreed, noting how important it is to discover someone else out there who is like you.
"There is just this fellowship with people who have had the same experiences," she said. "It is hard to describe. It is like an instant bond."