Veteran Cancer Survivor Inspired By Volunteers at Local VA Hospital

Daily Point of Light # 7820 May 27, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Diana Wong. Read her story, and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

Diana Wong, a three-time cancer survivor, is a testament to perseverance. In 1990, after nine years in the Air Force, a job she loved and a military legacy started by her father’s 26 years in the Army, she was forced to leave due to policy when she began her first battle with cancer. For over 15 years, she relied on the Albuquerque VA Medical Center where, in 2005, she would start volunteering.

Since then, she has branched out to many different veteran-associated roles with Disabled American Veterans Auxiliary (DAV), American Legion Auxiliary, AMVETS, Wounded Warriors, etc. She also started an all-women Color Guard team in 2014. Her decades of services have earned her the Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award for surpassing 4,000 hours of volunteerism this year, the latest in a long line of civic-minded honors.

On top of all of that, Diana works with civilian groups like Navajo Ministries (recently renamed Four Corners Home for Children) and American Cancer Society. While she may not have found herself in uniform for as long as she would have liked, her long-term dedication and strong sense of empathy have made possible the support both veterans and civilians facing battles of their own would be lost without.

What inspires you to volunteer?

When I first got out, I really didn’t want to have any to do with military organizations, because I was mad. But as God would have it, he kept putting me in the VA hospital. I got sick again, and a third time. I was like, Okay, you’re trying to tell me something. I’ve been going to this VA hospital for the past 35 years, and they’ve taken really good care of me. I saw volunteers there and decided that I wanted to serve in that way, because they were there for me.

My parents were also big volunteers. You never said you were bored around them, because they’d find something for you to do, like picking weeds out of the neighbor’s yard.

Diana Wong volunteers her time to many different organizations supporting both veterans and civilians, many of which support her local VA hospital.

Tell us about your volunteer role with your local VA hospital and beyond.

About 20 years ago, they asked me to help with the Women Veterans’ Clothing Closet. We collect clothing for inpatients from the Star Program and the domiciliary. And all the VAs have a Popcorn Program to raise funds. I’ve been doing that for 15 years now.

The VA hospital always needs stuff, and not one military organization can handle it all. So, if you belong to several you can always find ways to help. I belong to the American Legion and the VFW. They have their own programs. For example, on holidays we make gifts and bring them to the hospital for inpatients. It all intertwines.

I’ve also been helping in the VA chapel every Sunday for 18 years now. And I’m a volunteer at the New Mexico Veterans Memorial. I help watch their front desk and teach flag education—flag etiquette, history of Taps, how to retire a flag, etc.—to schools, Girls Scouts, Boy Scouts and others.

We started an all-women veterans Color Guard team back around 2016. We’ve got about 15 women and we do everything from graduations to special events, sports games, funerals, military organization events, etc. We’re going up to Angel Fire here in New Mexico to do a remembrance ceremony this Memorial weekend. They just built a new Walmart here, and they want us to bring the flags for them, too.

I’m involved with another Honor Guard unit, American Legion Post 13. We do funerals in Santa Fe at the National Cemetery. If a veteran passes away, they’ll call us to do the rifle volley and present the flag to the next of kin.

I’m with the DAV here, Post 33, and I’m involved with their auxiliary. Once a month, we do a party for Ward 7, the psychiatric ward. We bring in food and spend time talking with them. We also bring water and snacks to the oncology ward and other units at the VA so patients can have something after finishing with their treatments. And the Albuquerque Fisher House is right next door, so we help out there, too.

In September, we do a suicide prevention ride with the American Legion Riders to raise awareness. We lose 22 veterans per day to suicide. We do our full ceremony for that also in remembrance of those we’ve lost.

I’m also involved with the American Cancer Society. I DJ’ed for the Relay for Life for 18 years. I did 16 cities throughout the state of New Mexico every summer. I couldn’t carry the equipment anymore, so I had to slow down. I was also the ambassador constituent for the State of New Mexico for district one, and we used to go to Washington, D.C. every year to talk about her cancer issues.

As part of a nationwide program, Diana sells popcorn to raise funds for VA volunteer efforts.

You’ve also been on the Tribute to Women in the Military planning committee. Can you tell us about that?

The Tribute to Women in the Military started back in 1985. I was stationed out here at Kirtland Air Force Base at the time and was only 25 years old when I went to my first one. I attended it from ’85 to ’88, and then I came back in ‘96 and started working for the VA regional office. My supervisor asked me if I wanted to represent the office. So, I started going to meetings, and I’ve been involved with the Tribute for about 28 years now. I’m the president. We honor all women veterans’ past, present and future from all branches of the military.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

When we do the Color Guard duties, people are so grateful. It’s an honor to attend veteran funerals and do the rifle volley as that last respect. It’s very human and very humbling.

A friend called me the other day and asked if I knew anyone who needed an electric wheelchair or hospital bed. I went over to the American Legion and started asking around and, lo and behold, a lady had called earlier that morning saying she needed an electric wheelchair for her sister. So, I put them in touch. It’s rewarding to help somebody like that.

What do you want people to learn from your story?

At church this Sunday, the priest was talking about how everybody has a gift. He was talking about one of the women who plays the piano every week for mass. Mass will be mass, with or without music, but she comes every week to share her gift. Everybody has one to give. That’s our way of paying forward.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Diana? Find local volunteer opportunities.

Kristin Park