Veterans gather at the Hixson Walmart.
Chattanooga’s veterans continue a long tradition of giving back
John Sparks, U.S. Army, was flying a reconnaissance mission over enemy territory on April 24, 1968 when his twin-engine OV-1 Mohawk was hit by anti-aircraft fire. With both engines gone, he and the pilot ejected over a heavily wooded area near the Laotian border. Sparks was captured and spent nearly five years in the Hanoi Hilton, the soldiers’ euphemism for the most despicable prisoner-of-war camp in North Vietnam.
By any measure, most people would think that John Sparks had given enough of himself—for his country, his community. But there’s something about veterans that makes them want to give more. Sparks says he feels fortunate: that the country and its people have given him so much that he feels obligated to give back. “Many didn’t have the opportunity to come back and serve the community like we are able to do,” explains Sparks, “and that’s actually a privilege for us.”
Sparks is a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 203, located in Chattanooga. It is the second largest VVA chapter in the nation with nearly 800 members. Many of those members participate in the variety of charities and other events sponsored by the chapter. Just last week, John Sparks stood at the doorway of the Walmart on Highway 153 in Hixson. Giving out candy canes, wishing shoppers a “Merry Christmas” and accepting donations of a dollar here, a dollar there, he was helping underprivileged children have a better Christmas.
This has been a mission for Chapter 203 for the last 14 years, according to Chapter President and Army veteran Charlie Hobbs. He says his members work with the Salvation Army and their Angel Tree program. “We take names off the Angel Tree,” says Hobbs, “And that helps them, and we spend the money back in Walmart.”
The members of VVA Chapter 203 are not alone in their willingness to give back to their communities. In fact, nationally, veterans constitute one of the most vibrant communities of volunteers, yet there’s no way to definitively quantify that statement. The closest we can come is a statistic by the National Conference on Citizenship.
According to their website, better than one out of every four veterans is involved in some sort of volunteer activity. More than five million American military veterans give in excess of 82 million hours of service back to their communities.
Aside from the knowledge and anecdotal evidence from groups like the VVA, American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, it’s very hard to see these vol-vets in action. Yet, time after time when there’s a volunteer project underway, whether it’s building a house for the homeless, collecting toys for underprivileged kids, paying an electric bill for a senior citizen or just picking up litter from a local highway, you see them. They’re there. Veterans are always among the volunteers.
The information given earlier in this story about Jack Sparks was just about all The Pulse could get. He was very tight-lipped about the amount and extent of work donated by him and his comrades except to say that veterans—mostly older veterans who are retired—have the time, energy and know-how to get things done. To get things done on time and within a budget. Yet for all they do, most veterans do it in the background. They don’t do it for the credit, or for any other reason except that they feel they need to.
There are many groups whose advertised purpose is to help veterans. The Wounded Warrior Project, Disabled American Veterans, Wings for Warriors and We Honor Veterans are all dedicated to helping the veteran. And even in their ranks, most of the volunteers are veterans. It’s a holdover from their military service, when each soldier was told to look to his left, then look to his right. He was then told that these are his brothers and that each would look after the other. In military jargon it’s called, “Got your six,” “six” meaning the clock-relative position of your back. Soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen always have each other’s back.
One of the most active groups of veterans volunteering are those of the Vietnam era. “Most of us are retiring,” says Hobbs, “and we have time to do stuff like this.” Another factor in the volunteerism, especially by Vietnam vets, is that most of them got no hero’s welcome when they returned home from battle. They were simply returning to a nation weary of an unpopular war, even being subjected to jeers from anti-war protesters. Not that they blame the reception entirely on those who came before them, but the Vietnam Veterans of America motto is “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”
Hobbs tells The Pulse that not all their work is on a grand scale, such as the collections at Walmart last week. “You know, we’re just a service organization…that’s what we do,” he says, “Veterans sometimes come through here and they may need gas money and stuff like that.” The VVA membership also helps fellow vets find their way through government red tape. “We help them when they’re homeless,” Hobbs explains, “we help them get their (VA) benefits.”
Air Force veteran Marsha Thibadeaux started volunteering when she enlisted in the service. In a war in which most people were drafted, Thibadeaux willingly enlisted. Being a woman in the 1960s, her job was clerical in nature. But she served four years and is now still giving of herself by standing outside the Walmart.
“I participate in the military funerals in the honor guard,” she says of her other volunteerism. “I’m the bugle blower and I help with the hat ceremony for the POWs and if they ask me to do something, I do it—whatever.” Thibadeaux’s experience as a clerk is also helpful in guiding other vets through the process of getting needed assistance from the government and other agencies.
Standing across from Thibadeaux is Ernest Turner. “I served from April 1964 through March of 1970,” says Turner, “And I was in the Army Reserves for six years.” Turner explains that he never had to go overseas and feels extremely fortunate for that. He says he feels much respect for those who did see combat and that he volunteers to help give back for the good fortune he’s experienced.
Some of the veterans contacted for this story wouldn’t even allow their names to be published. Protective of their contributions to others, they labor in secret. One tells me that he doesn’t want “people coming out of the woodwork looking for free help,” yet a listing of the projects he’s helped complete would put a full-time contractor to shame. For now we’ll call him “Jim.” Jim retired from his job as a salesman several years ago and thought it would be fun to take his hobby of carpentry and try to make a difference.
Through his church, he has fixed broken windows, built handicap-access ramps, re-screened porches and even built doghouses. Jim uses money collected by the church to buy the materials, uses his own tools and never asks for a dime in return. “I just figure if I can make one person’s life a little easier,” Jim explains, “by being there and fixing things they can’t fix on their own…well, I’d appreciate it if somebody did that for me if I needed it.”
It’s very likely that if Jim ever slows down and needs help around the house, there’ll be a fellow veteran on his doorstep asking what they can do to help.