by Stephanie Hertzenberg
Amid the Memorial Day barbecues, cookouts and pool parties, Steve Wingfield works to recognize the heroes the holiday represents. For the last five years, Steve Wingfield Ministries have made it a point to recognize veterans and active military members at the Rockingham County Fair Grounds during the local Memorial Day celebration organized by the ministry. The annual celebration is an offshoot of Victory Weekend, a popular part of Steve’s ministry he holds in various locations.
The seeds of Victory Weekend were sown when Steve did a crusade festival at a NASCAR race in Bristol, Tennessee. “I’d never been to a race but I’d follow NASCAR a bit to use it as a witnessing tool and to be able to talk about racing with people,” Steve said. “I came out of the chapel and saw how many people were sitting around this track and thought ‘There has to be a way to reach these people.’ Bristol gave me the first opportunity to do it and made me aware this could be viable.”
More than 300,000 people fill the grounds of race tracks on race weekends with many fans arriving on Wednesday or Thursday. Once they are settled in, race-goers are reluctant to leave the grounds. “They don’t want to drive anywhere because of the traffic, so we entertain them and represent Jesus,” Steve said.
It’s a way of saying thank you and also helping our community to be aware of the many difficulties that veterans are facing
Despite his captive audience, Steve’s first attempt was far from perfect. “I learned how not to do it the first time out,” he laughed. His mistakes taught him valuable lessons, though. During his second attempt, Victory Weekend was at three races. This past year, it appeared at 14. “We’re seeing God move in great ways,” he said.
While Steve was reaching out to racing fans, Victory Weekend made it clear to him there was another group of people that needed his help. “I observed so much pain within the military community. The suicide rate is 22 per day among veterans and that does not count their spouses or children.” He began honoring veterans at each Victory Weekend location. “[We are] helping everyone be aware of the needs within this community of people who have served us,” says Steve.
The Memorial Day celebration allowed Steve to focus more on the veterans themselves. “It’s a way of saying thank you and also helping our community to be aware of the many difficulties that veterans are facing,” he explains. During the celebration, Steve calls all veterans and active-duty military to the stage where he and his volunteers hang a medal around the necks of the veterans and military attendees. Steve thanks them for their service, gives them a hug or handshake and leads a prayer. “The reaction is overwhelming,” Steve said. “The crowd goes crazy. They’re cheering and weeping. For those that hang the medals, if you can do that and keep a dry eye, it’s rare. The people that have the honor of presenting the medals are overwhelmed by the privilege.”
That cheering crowd has swelled since Steve first started this celebration. More than 6,000 people attended the 2017 celebration including 160 veterans and active-duty military personnel. Seventy-five members of the community volunteered their time and numerous food vendors provided meals and snacks for those in attendance. There were also over 300 classic cars on display.
Preparing for those large numbers of attendees and volunteers requires careful planning. “We start planning the next celebration at the end of each Memorial Day,” Steve said. “We talk about what went right and how we can improve on what we’re doing.” The upcoming 2018 celebration is no different in this regard. “We are currently finalizing our entertainment for 2018, and hopefully we will be able to roll that out within the next couple weeks.”
Steve hopes the events continue to grow and bring the community together “to celebrate our veterans and remember the fallen.” The Memorial Day celebration is also a way to spread awareness about the high suicide rates among veterans and their families. “Their pain is off the charts,” Steve said. “[Veterans’] spouses and children are killing themselves too. It’s a crisis.”
Beyond spreading awareness, Steve hopes the Memorial Day celebration will give local veterans some of the support they need. He is challenging everyone to be aware of the difficulties both veterans and the families of veterans face and to support them. Steve’s goal is to let veterans know they have friends and family who support them, and urges people to show their love and appreciation for these brave men and women. “Be a hero to a hero,” Steve said. “Look for ways that we can befriend our veterans. Say thank you, be available to talk with someone or pray with or for them.” Regardless of whether or not you attend Steve’s Sixth Annual Memorial Day celebration this May, take a moment to give back to those who were willing to give everything for others.
Stephanie Hertzenberg was a year-long intern with Valley Living.