The men behind the service — SETX veterans work to pay last respects
NEDERLAND — Jerry Kelley, Johnny Colunga and C.P. Williams spend a lot of their free time at funerals and sometimes attending as many as four services in one day.
As members of the non-profit Southeast Texas Veterans Service Group, they don the uniform of their branch of the military and with somber dignity they offer words of comfort, fold and present the flag to the family of the deceased military veteran, perform taps and take part in a three volley rifle salute.
Their services are offered free of charge to any deceased veteran discharged under conditions other than dishonorable.
The members of the group share the unspoken bond that veterans, especially combat veterans, have.
“Any of the 55 or so of us in this group can sit down for coffee and look across the table at each other eyeball to eyeball and connect with each other. It’s an even playing field. We know. We served,” Ret. U.S. Army Capt. Jerry Kelley of Nederland said while seated at his home with Colunga and Williams. “For this reason I won’t miss a Vietnam veteran’s funeral.”
For Kelley, U.S. Army helicopter pilot and combat veteran of the Vietnam War, the volunteerism began as a therapeutic endeavor of sorts. Seeing the family of the veteran, their gratefulness, is what drives these men on.
“First of all, all three of us have post traumatic stress disorder in one way or another,” Kelley said. “I’m 100 percent. The community and employment think I’m crazy. It’s just everyday things affect us.”
Kelley has seen the same doctor at the Veterans Administration for the past 15 years. He asked his doctor one day more than a decade ago if it would do him any good to be part of the SETVSG. The answer — “I don’t see why not.”
Kelley, who is known by many as “Captain,” enlisted in the Army on May 2, 1964 in Port Arthur. He retired after 29 years of service, but it was the 22 month period in the late 60’s that is forever imbedded in his memory.
A young man with more than 200 hours logged in as a pilot, Kelley found his purpose in the war torn country — to help his fellow military men and women.
“We were three days in country,” Kelley began his story of the life changing time in Vietnam. “I looked down (through the bubble of glass in the helicopter) and saw this man. He was just a kid, standing waist deep in water, his arms up holding his rifle over his head. The helicopter blew the grass around, it was marshy, and I could see him. I thought then, ‘That’s who I’m fighting for.’”
Ret. U.S. Marine Corporal C.P. Williams, who now lives north of Deweyville, joined the military in 1963 and was in Vietnam from 1965 to 1967.
“We established base there,” Williams said of his first experience with war in Vietnam. “For a 19-year-old kid, that’s probably the scardest I’ve been in my life. We landed at night.”
Ret. Army Sgt. First Class Johnny Colunga was a military man for many years and later retired from the U.S. Postal Service. He is also a combat veteran who was in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969.
Colunga became interested in being part of the veterans service group some years ago and was first required to observe three funerals but observed a few more, he said.
“Once I jumped in, I was in 100 percent,” Colunga, a bronze star medal recipient, said. “This is my way of giving back. I’ve been doing it since 2009. It’s for the veterans. These guys (Kelley and Williams) can yell you, I don’t turn down funerals.”
While these veterans welcome all, they themselves were once not welcome in their own country.
Williams’ negative experiences occurred across the country decades ago.
“I lived in California back then when they had all the riots and demonstrations in the streets,” Williams said. “I stayed in the background, never bragged of my service.”
Nowadays it is common to see Vietnam veterans wear a T-shirt or baseball cap proclaiming their service to the country. For this trio, it was decades before they felt comfortable showing pride for their service.
Williams began wearing his Vietnam veteran cap about seven or eight years ago. Colunga would wear his boonie hat, a camouflage shirt without the military patches but with his name, paired with jeans. He didn’t start wearing the ball caps until he retired in 1992.
Kelley’s experiences with post-war America upon coming home were typical of other Vietnam veterans across the nation.
“The Army did a good job preparing you to fight the Viet Cong but not for life afterward,” Kelley said, beginning his story with his arrival in San Francisco, Calif. “We (he and other soldiers in uniform) were in a cab and this VW bus, a hippie mobile, came by and this guy stuck his ass out the window at us.”
Kelley paused a few seconds before going on with the story.
“We were called baby killers and spit upon, and if you decked one of them back the San Francisco cops would arrest you. The sooner I was out of my uniform, the better. I was like that for a long time. Later I thought, ‘Hell yeah, I served’ and now wear my cap.”
Kelley also dealt with the jokes during coffee and smoke breaks while working at Gulf Oil decades ago. Invariably, he said, someone would bring up the topic of the Vietnam War and he became the butt of the jokes.
“Then I’d look over at the old boilermakers. I always had a good rapport with them, many of whom were veterans,” he said. “There’s that plane, that knowing between vets. They knew I had flown helicopters and they called me Captain.”
Now, when Kelley drives his big recreational vehicle around, there are numerous signs that yes, he is a proud veteran. There are the stickers showing his awards and decorations and silhouettes of every helicopter he’s qualified to fly.
He has also found that Americans have changed their views of Vietnam veterans.
“I found that the hippie generation grew up, and now I hear from them they feel honored for our service,” he said.
The best part of the acceptance came in December when, while in dress uniform, Kelley walked through a mall seeking a Christmas gift for his wife.
“This little girl came running up to me and wrapped her arms around my legs and said, ‘Thank you for your service.’ I’ll always remember that.”