Sen. Hagan stops in at VFW post
By Shelley Smithssmith@salisburypost.com
Randall Epps, a Vietnam veteran and former Marine, remembers being pinned down for 77 days during the Tet Offensive.
“They had to drop food by parachute,” he said. “We lost a lot of Marines and were shelled every day.
“I remember going outside the perimeter the first day. It was May 19, 1968. We lost 33 Marines and 100 were wounded. It almost wiped out our whole company.”
Epps and other veterans use the VFW to share memories with fellow veterans.
“I’m a life member here,” said Epps. “I come here for the camaraderie and to be around other Vietnam vets and other veterans.
“There’s not a veteran here that I couldn’t depend on. There’s no one here these people wouldn’t help; it’s wonderful.”
Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) made a special trip to the Hudson-Miller-Tatum Post VFW Post 3006 in Salisbury to meet and greet veterans.
“We’re here to honor our veterans for their hard work and sacrifices,” said Hagan. “The JROTC were also here, and they’re our future heroes.”
Hagan’s husband is a Vietnam veteran, and her two sons are currently in the U.S. military as well.
“It’s very important to tell these men and women ‘thanks,’ ” she said.
The VFW hosted a Rowan County Veteran Council barbecue luncheon, an annual fundraiser for Post 3006. More than 600 people passed through, some taking barbecue plates to go, and some staying to talk with the veterans.
“On Memorial Day we honor our heroes ó the ones who gave it all,” said Gary Foster,, post commander. “On Veterans Day we honor all veterans, past and present. The men and women who have fought for the freedoms of others.”
Foster said positive recognition of veterans is fairly new to him and other vets.
“Right now, the mindset of the entire country has changed,” said Foster. “Vietnam was a very unpopular war. The public is more in tune with what soldiers go through today, and veterans as a group are more appreciated now than they have been since World War II.”
Foster, also a Vietnam veteran, was a U.S. Marine. He and his wife, Malinda, run the show at Post 3006 and try to give back to the community and veterans as much as possible. They know the importance of giving back: their son currently is serving in Iraq.
The VFW Post 3006 helps with Rowan Helping Ministries, Operation Uplink (providing phone cards to soldiers overseas), programs at the VA Hospital, Pillows for Soldiers (providing a body pillow for all patients at the VA Hospital), stockings for soldiers, and much more throughout the community and churches.
The community also gives back to the VFW. On Veterans Day, Five Guys restaurant donated $1 to the VFW Military Assistance Program for every sandwich sold from 5-8:30 p.m.
“We just want to help out the community,” manager William Cooper said.
Malinda Foster, the VFW’s canteen manager, has been involved at the VFW off and on for the past 21 years.
“They have people they can talk to that understand them,” Malinda said of the veterans who are involved at the VFW. “A lot of times the general public doesn’t understand, and to me, that’s its main purpose. The brotherhood for the veterans is great here.”
Ricky Hawkey, 24, has already served time in Iraq, and plans to go back voluntarily. He enjoys the friends he has at the VFW.
“The brotherhood and camaraderie here is great,” Hawkey said. “We’ve all been in the same place ó even if it was a different time frame or different war ó we’ve all been there.
“I’m going back to war voluntarily. Since I was young I always wanted to be in the military and was always patriotic.”
Navy retiree John Salonen calls his mood while at the VFW “elated.”
“It’s just a sense of patriotism and it continues on whether you’re retired or not,” said Salonen. “I’m proud of every one of the veterans.”
Salonen flew a one-of-a- kind helicopter in the Navy and was a Seawolf.
“We were the only Navy helicopter combat unit in Vietnam, the most decorated squadron in Vietnam.”
Salonen flew with two pilots and two door gunners through canals and rivers in Vietnam. One of his door gunners won the Navy Cross, one step from the Purple Heart.
Sam Blackwelder, 25, was a Marine and served nine months in Iraq. He appreciates the fellowship the VFW offers.
“I come here and we’re all the same,” Blackwelder said. “Everyone’s a retiree and everyone knows what it’s like to be a veteran.
“If you ever have a problem with something, you can talk to any of these guys here and they’ll talk to you. It’s just a good environment with good people,” he said.
“This is our place,” said Vietnam veteran Bruce Blakinship. “This is where we come, and we have a good time.”
Harry Ward spent eight years, two months and 13 days in the Air Force, serving one of his years in the Vietnam war.
“It’s close to my house, and I enjoy the people here,” said Ward. “Veterans Day means a great deal to me. And now, for the majority of people, they appreciate the veterans.
“When I came back from Vietnam, people were spitting on us. They thought we were crazy baby killers. Now people appreciate what we’ve done.”
Tom Amos spent 23 years in the Marines and fought in the Korean War.
“This is a big social event for me,” said Amos. “I get up here twice a month and have a meal with my fellow vets, and we help the community.”
Amos said he enjoys the fellowship with all of the veterans, young and old, especially on Veterans Day.
“This is a day I set aside to remember and honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice,” said Amos. “They laid down their lives to give us the opportunity to celebrate what we’re doing today ó living our lives freely.”
“To me, a vet is a vet,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where they served, we all served for the same purpose.”
Amos and many others hope to see more veterans join the VFW.
“We’re trying to get more of the veterans in here and get them involved and would love to have more of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans,” Foster said.
The VFW Post 3006 is at 1200 Brenner Avenue, a few blocks away from the VA Hospital.