A Kansas University basketball fan for years, Homer Marshall had never set foot on the KU campus until Tuesday.
Then, in the afternoon, he was surrounded by jerseys, old photos, trophies and more at the Booth Family Hall of Athletics in front of Allen Fieldhouse. He had to sit down.
"Amazing," Marshall said, looking around.
Marshall, who served in the Army National Guard and the Marine Corps during the 1970s, was one of eight veterans from the Topeka Veterans Affairs Medical Center's nursing-home unit, the Community Living Center, who toured the KU campus Tuesday.
Students from the KU Collegiate Veterans Association group worked with VA officials to set up the day, which included a bus tour of the war memorials on campus and stops at the Dole Institute of Politics and the Booth Hall.
"We just like to get them out for a breath of fresh air," said Janis Holiwell, clinical nurse leader for the VA unit where these men are staying. The visit took months to organize, she said, and full-day outings like this are quite rare for people in the unit.
The veterans who pass through the Community Living Center, all 55 or older, tend to stay for a period of several weeks before being released back to their families, Holiwell said. These days, most of them served in Vietnam.
In the group that visited Tuesday, though, there was 94-year-old World War II Army veteran Lowell Freeman, another KU fan.
"Let's go," Freeman said as the group wrapped up lunch at the Lawrence VFW Post 852 and prepared to head to Allen Fieldhouse.
At the Booth Hall, he reached up from his wheelchair to touch the handprint of former KU basketball star Raef LaFrentz on the wall, and gazed at how far the fingers extended past his.
The nurses who know Freeman told the people meeting him they should hear his story: In Italy, he was part of a 767-man unit that ran into a force of tanks, after Italians were informed of their arrival. Only six of those men survived, and Freeman says he's the final one still living.
"They wiped us out," Freeman said.
Derrick Gonzales, a KU sophomore who helped organize the trip, said it had been the best day he'd had in some time. A Coast Guard veteran and current member of the Air National Guard, he said that in some ways he felt more comfortable around a group of other veterans like this than he does among other people in class or elsewhere.
"Being around veterans, being around those who've experienced what you've experienced, it's very calming to me," Gonzales said.
Marshall, who's been at the VA for three weeks while undergoing lung cancer treatment, said he'd been waiting a long time to visit Allen Fieldhouse where his beloved Jayhawks played. But he said the highlight of the trip was actually the Dole Institute, where he learned that Bob Dole, for whom he'd voted, sustained battlefield injuries during World War II so severe that doctors wondered if he would walk again.
Nurse Lori Nicoll said Marshall had been talking about the trip for days.
"Made my day, a little bit," Marshall said.
Another veteran, Raymond Williams, had been scheduled to be discharged from the VA on Monday, but he asked to stay on for a couple extra days just so he could come to KU.
On Tuesday, at the conclusion of each stop he shook the hands of everyone he met there, saying "Thank you."
Abbi Huderle, a former KU rower, led the group on a tour of the Booth Hall, then gave them a look at the basketball practice facility in the Horejsi Family Athletics Center, where the center-court circle from the 2008 Final Four hangs on the wall.
Short-term memory has grown fuzzy for some of these men, Holiwell said, though they can certainly recall scenes from their days serving their country. But she suspected this day would stay with them for at least a while, and not just because of the free Jayhawk hats and KU CVA T-shirts they'd received.
"They'll talk about it tomorrow," Holiwell said.