Gratitude Fuels Mission to Honor Elderly Veterans

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins December 15, 2008 18:12

Phil Hubbs (left) and Lee Freeman with WWII vet Jack Buster

A few years back, retired naval pilot Phil Hubbs was in the VFW canteen in Sonora’s Veterans Hall.

His storied military career – 343 combat missions in Vietnam from 1969-1971, and 20 years of Navy service in all – hadn’t exactly segued into the bright future he once envisioned.

In fact, Phil was losing altitude fast. He’d been married and divorced several times, couldn’t keep a job, until here he was among compatriots “complaining about too little whiskey and too few women, feeling like I just didn’t line up with the rest of the world.”

Along came Lee Freeman, a former US Marine who’d been in numerous firefights in Vietnam from 1965-66 while on reconnaissance out of Chu Lai, a US Navy base southeast of Danang.

Lee knew post-traumatic stress disorder when he saw it – and in this case, it was warming that barstool. He had been diagnosed, both with PTSD and Agent Orange damage, four years earlier. He hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in years, had a shunt in his liver, and had lesions cropping up all over his body, all tied to a Vietnam tour of duty when he “ate, slept and drank Agent Orange, because they dropped it on us all the time.”

Dealing with his many medical problems, Lee became well-versed in the physical and emotional toll of combat.

“When I heard Phil talking,” says Lee, now 63, “I looked right at him and said, ‘You know what your problem is, dude? You have PTSD.’ ”

“I was embarrassed,” recalls Phil, 65, who retired as a Navy commander, “because whatever I had showed.”

For Phil, Lee’s blunt pronouncement caused a shift, and led to a new friendship with a man he now considers a brother. With Lee’s help, Phil connected with the Sonora Veterans Service Office, entered counseling, and won disability benefits that allowed him to retire in relative comfort. Not that he spends much time in an easy chair.

He and Lee, a former truck driver and school janitor until health problems forced him to retire, spend much of their time helping elderly veterans and supporting veterans’ causes.

Both are deeply involved in the VFW Honor Guard, providing military honors at veterans’ funerals. The two, along with other volunteers, also visit hospitalized veterans and elderly vets living out their lives in area care homes – some of whom have few or no other visitors.

“One of the saddest things is when we find out that someone we visited in the rest home has died and was buried, and we were never called,” Phil says, pointing out that these vets missed out on the recognition they deserved.

Any honorably discharged veteran is eligible to be buried with military honors at no cost. The Honor Guard, an all-volunteer group, is an arm of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3154, recently renamed the William Lloyd Davis-Robert Theodore Rapp Post 3154. The guard’s dozen active members regularly attend funeral and memorial services at the request of families, through area funeral homes or veterans’ groups. Honors may include a 21-gun salute, taps, flag procession, and the folding and formal presentation of an American flag to family members.

The Honor Guard attends dozens of funerals and memorial services annually, visits area schools, and participates in Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies. Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 391, also has a Color Guard active at numerous local events.

VFW Honor Guard members fire WWII-vintage M1s that weigh in at about 12 pounds each. Members include Ed Sudduth; Chris Hatmaker; Ben Teal; bugler Bill Toler; Don Gritz; George Sanders; Gary Taylor; Ed Brouillard; Frank Matranga; Mario Salas and Jim Napier. And of course, Lee and Phil.

Lee sees it not as volunteerism, but as his duty. “This is my payback,” he says, “giving back to other veterans, because I was taken care of by Uncle Sam.”

Phil shares that gratitude.

“It’s a debt I can never repay,” he says of the benefits he has received. “Now I want to give something in return.”

What they give mostly is their time.

“I call them the dynamic duo,” says Frank Matranga, commander of the 200-member Sonora VFW post. “You know how you always hear people talk, ‘We ought to do this, we ought to do that …’ With those two, it gets done. I just love them. I think they’re the greatest, and they go out of their way to help veterans.”

Both Lee and Phil are either officers or members of a half-dozen local veterans’ groups, and spend many weekdays and weekends in related service work. It is a source of joy to the two, who share an easy humor and a deep respect for each other.

“Even though what I did was dangerous – got shot down a couple of times – I never had that kind of exposure like he did, guys who slept out at night with the snakes and spiders and bugs,” Phil says. “I’d go back to the carrier and scare myself getting back on it, but the air conditioning was on, there were sheets on the bed, and somebody was serving me food. You just can’t imagine the dichotomy in lifestyles in the same war.”

“When I met Phil,” Lee says, “it felt like a brotherly thing because in Vietnam, I knew that guys like him were up there soaring around – we needed them, and they needed us.” Now, veterans’ groups are the ones in need. The average age of VFW members is 70, Lee says, adding, “The World War II veterans are leaving us, and we need young blood to keep these veterans’ groups going.”

Younger members are also needed to support and honor the growing ranks of elderly veterans – before and after their passing. The role of the honor and color guards is important not only in honoring elderly veterans, but to their survivors. Lee has seen family members carefully gather up the shell casings thrown by those M1s, as a last memento of their loved one.

“Our motto is to honor the dead but take care of the living,” Lee says. “Our vets gave their time and life to give us a free country. In their later years, and after they pass on, they deserve the best treatment we can give them.”

Jack’s Story

World War II veteran Jack Buster, 98, served in the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division, which saw heavy combat throughout the South Pacific.

When his unit landed on battle-torn Kwajalein Island, the Marines declared it free of enemy soldiers. The next day as Jack walked to the mess tent, helmet in hand, a Japanese soldier dropped out of a tree and struck him in the head with a bayonet. Jack’s pal Johnny shot and killed the attacker.

Jack was flow to Australia, where surgeons repaired his shattered skull with a steel plate. He argued his way back to the unit, and recalls the cheering crowd that met him. “You’d have thought I was a beautiful young lady — they stormed me,” he says.

He stayed in the service until 1948 as part of the occupying forces in Japan, and went on to earn a degree in structural engineering from Stanford University. He lives in Tuolumne General’s long-term care unit.

© 2008, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins December 15, 2008 18:12
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