Naval Salute

Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly return a WWII uniform to a Navy veteran’s family

jim Nintzel
Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords return a WWII veteran’s uniform to his daughter, Penny Welch, and her husband, David Welch

Penny Welch didn't expect to find herself sitting in the living room of Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly, but there she was last week.

Welch, 60, and her husband, David Welch, were visiting the former congresswoman and the retired astronaut to pick up the U.S. Navy uniform her father, LeRoy James Vacovsky, wore during his years of service in World War II.

Welch, who lives outside of Chicago in Sugar Grove, Ill., said she was "in shock" when she got Kelly's call informing her that he had her dad's uniform. She had looked for it when she was cleaning out the family home when her parents were moving to an assisted-living facility, but she couldn't find it. To discover that it was still out there was a thrill.

"My heart was just full of joy," she said.

Vacovsky's uniform had landed in Giffords' possession after her mother, Gloria, spotted it in a thrift store shortly after Gabby had started dating Kelly. Gloria bought it, thinking it would be a cute gift for her daughter. Kelly and Giffords had started to look around to see if they could find the original owner about six years ago, but before they were able to solve the mystery, the uniform was misplaced. It turned up a few months ago and Kelly resumed the search. He found Vacovsky's obituary online and then started cold calling the listed survivors. He found one of Vacovsky's grandsons, who passed along the name and number of his aunt Penny.

As it turns out, Penny and David Welch have family in the Tucson area and they booked a flight out to Arizona a few weeks before they got Kelly's call. Rather than risk losing the uniform in the mail, they said they'd like to pick it up while they were out here—which is how they found themselves sitting in Gabby and Mark's living room in front of a row of TV cameras. "("Sit up straight," Gabby advised Mark when the cameras were set to start rolling.)

How exactly the uniform ended up in a thrift store in Arizona is anyone's guess; Vacovsky had lived in Illinois and hadn't spent time in Arizona, according to his daughter.

But Welch was grateful for the opportunity to recover her father's uniform. He had signed up for the Navy when he was just 17 years old, in 1943, and worked as an aircraft electrician in Hawaii. He served in the Navy for four years and then transitioned to the reserves. His electrician training served him well; he would work for Western Electric his entire career.

Vacovsky died in 2008 at the age of 81. Welch has a spot in her home that's dedicated to his memory and the uniform will join his medals and his flag.

Kelly, who served in the Navy for 25 years, said he was happy for the chance to return Vacovsky's uniform to his family.

"My grandfather served in World War II," he said. "I know if my grandfather's uniform was out there somewhere, I'd love to have that."

Kelly added that it was important "to thank those veterans from World War II for what they did."

It was a busy day for Kelly and Giffords; after meeting with Welch, they were off to catch a flight to Houston to say goodbye to Kelly's twin brother Scott, who is also an astronaut.

Scott Kelly is leaving this week for Russia to prepare for a year-long stay aboard the International Space Station. As part of his work, Scott Kelly will be monitoring his physical health while doctors on earth do the same for Mark Kelly to see what kind of effects a year-long stay in space has on a human's body.

Welch said it was "an honor" to meet Giffords and Kelly.

"Gabby is just so sweet," she said. "And Mark is a very, very kind man as well."

Welch still deeply misses her father.

"He was my buddy," she said. "I looked up to him so much. He was a wonderful guy. He was very loyal. He loved his family. He just loved us all so much."

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