A warm welcome at the White House
Marilynn Lieurance thumbs over a red, white and blue ribbon adorned with military club pins. It's a ribbon she made herself and recently, wore proudly on the lapel of her suit during a visit to the White House.
Lieurance, who lives in Scappoose with her husband, is the daughter of a World War II veteran killed in action. Hanford "Rusty" Rustand was part of the 91st Bomb Group when his plane went down in Germany. Lieurance wasn't born yet when her father died in war. Her mother remarried and went on to have more children, never relishing in her late husband's memory.
As Lieurance got older, her penchant for research helped her unearth the story of a father she never met but always wondered about.
It wasn't until well into her adult life that Lieurance learned more about her father's military service. She went on to connect with World War II historians and became a member of a World War II orphans group.
Each year, the orphans group sends a select number of members to the White House for an invite-only ceremony honoring families of fallen service members.
This year was Lieurance's turn.
She got an official invitation in her mailbox on May 2. She and up to three guests were to be at the White House for a special evening at 5 p.m. Monday, June 4.
On the Memorial Day prior to that, Lieurance and a fellow member of the World War II Orphans Network group had taken part in a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
The little girl who grew up never knowing her biological father was now a woman meeting the U.S. president during a ceremony to honor her father's memory and service.
"It's very meaningful to us," Lieurance says, with photos, an embossed invitation and ceremony program splayed out on her dining room table. "Our life is really kind of geared around military. It's an honor to be in Washington. Putting politics aside, some people don't even want to hear you're going to the White House, but it's a great honor, regardless of what political party you're for or against. It's a great honor to be invited."
Lieurance is candid about a childhood with a tough love mother who was often emotionally unavailable. She shares fond memories of her brother, James, who also died young at the age of 36 in a helicopter crash. A man with a lust for life and adventure, his death left her reeling for years.
Years later, she found herself tootling around on Ancestry.com.
"A silhouette popped up and I couldn't figure out who it was," she recalls. She sent a message to the profile and got a response from a woman who said she was the wife of the man who turned up as an undiscovered family match of hers.
Lieurance says the match was a nephew. Her brother, unbeknown to his family, and probably even to him, had a son.
Much like Lieurance, she says the boy never knew his father and his mother never spoke of him.
"We found each other through ancestry," Lieurance says, still a hint of disbelief in her voice. "I thought, what better way to let him know he's loved than to invite him to the White House? He looks just like my brother."
On the evening of the ceremony, Lieurance arrived with her friend and fellow Orphan Network member and her newly found nephew, Scott.
She recalls waiting outside the White House for the gate to open before the event, then being ushered in to an entryway.
"We went through about three securities, even though we had already gone through security clearance," she recalls. "You can't take an umbrella in, but as a guest, you can have a purse and many other things you can't bring on a tour. You can go in the rooms as a guest, look around, take pictures. We saw paintings of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Onassis, Washington's sword, in the library."
Lieurance describes in detail a long table filled with food for guests: seafood, lamb, wine, desserts. It seemed in stark contrast to the standard Memorial Day breakfast other World War II group members were invited to in years past before President Donald Trump took office.
"Our president is a man who's going to do things his way, and he's going to do things a little more upscale," she says. "Toward the end of the hall, there was a staircase to the right, on the platform there was a harpist playing, it set the mood for an elegant evening."
At the far end of the room, a line was forming.
"You could see the president standing in there," Lieurance says.
She and others waited patiently to shake hands with President Trump, posing for an official White House photo.
"It was an honor to meet and shake the hand of the president. Not everybody gets to do that," she says.
After remarks from the president, a speech from a Gold Star family member — a father whose son was killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom — and a performance of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," guests took part in a candle-lighting ceremony.
Lieurance recalls a long row of white candles — one for each fallen soldier.
"Guests would stand up when their family member's name was called, then two men would light the candle," she says.
The ceremony closed with "America the Beautiful."
Lieurance has traveled across the country and to Europe to connect with others and trace her father's history, meeting foreign dignitaries along the way. She says the White House visit was the first time she got to honor her father in an official capacity on American soil.
She volunteers with the World War II orphan network group and now oversees the program for arranging trips to the White House.
"I surely would like to see other people experience what we did," she notes. "Everyone that could possibly attend such a thing should be able to."