Fort Eustis soldiers visit with veterans

alrockett@dailypress.com
Fort Eustis soldiers on a four-day leave for Veterans Day spend it with older veterans.

HAMPTON — Four veterans sat in a semi-circle Monday in the front parlor at Commonwealth Assisted Living at Hampton.

Across from them were reflections of their younger selves — service men in uniform.

"What branch of the service are you in?" William Batts, who had served in the Navy during World War II, asked the Fort Eustis soldiers.

"Can't you tell?" said the 87-year-old David Jenkins, whose hat showed he'd fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. "They're Army. They've got flat feet."

The soldiers, from the 2nd Battalion, 210th Aviation Regiment, laughed. No one took offense.

Jenkins said he started his nearly 30-year military career in the U.S. Army, then moved under what was then called the Army Air Corps and eventually left the service in the Air Force. He spent 12 years of his career overseas.

Staff Sgt. Derek Wilkinson said he'd been deployed to Afghanistan twice, spending a total of two years there.

"It's not 12 years," Wilkinson said, "but the best part was coming home. Isn't that right?"

Jenkins nodded, understanding.

Wilkinson started visiting nursing homes, Veterans Affairs hospitals and retirement communities regularly about six years ago, when he began a group called "Veterans Supporting Veterans" in Tennessee. He'd been visiting his grandfather, also a military veteran living in a nursing home, and found there were other veterans who didn't have anyone to visit them.

"I've been deployed a lot, so I know being alone sucks," he said. "One day, I want people to come see me. It's the military, so everybody cares about each other. It wouldn't work if you didn't care."

The men took turns trading war stories, jabs and memories.

An Air Force veteran, Rex Frey piped in saying he was in 30 years with tours during World War II and Vietnam. He said he logged 4,000 flying hours and told the young guys all the places he'd been.

"They always have great stories," said Staff Sgt. Lance Wagner. He has participated in three Veterans Supporting Veterans events.

In the memory-care unit, for residents who have dementia or Alzheimer's, the soldiers passed out blankets, hats, gloves, cards and candy.

Bobby Dickerson perked up when he saw the familiar green fatigues. He grew up near Fort Bragg, N.C., where many of the Eustis soldiers had once been stationed, though Dickerson served in South Carolina.

Visiting with the dementia patients is always the hardest part of the trip for Wagner, he said. "Usually it's the low point of my day, but I know it's the highest point of theirs."

Lawanda Hunley, activities manager at the assisted living facility, said the residents enjoy visitors, especially those in uniform.

"It's very beneficial," Hunley said for those who once served. "They can relate to what they went through."

The soldiers are holding a "pinning ceremony" at another facility in Hampton on Veterans Day, giving awards to veterans who didn't get them while they were in the service.

Rockett can be reached by phone at 757-247-4942.

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