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Military veterans find ways to give back after their time in uniform

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As America celebrates Veterans Day, many former service members are finding ways to give back to the north country community, Fort Drum and fellow retirees and their families.

USO volunteers Robert C. Kip and George A. Barton said giving back can be as simple as cleaning up a table at the organization’s location on Fort Drum, serving up a hot dog on Wednesdays or shaking the hand of a soldier returning from deployment. They have volunteered on post for about three years.

Mr. Barton, who served in the Air Force for 21 years, said volunteers like him and his wife, Alice, are among the first people soldiers see when they return from deployments to the post’s rapid deployment facility.

“I’ve had more than one guy, you shake his hand, next thing you know he’s got you in a bear hug and you’re going ‘Great, great, welcome home.’”

Mr. Kip, a retired Army specialist, travels back and forth nearly three hours from Owego to do three-hour shifts at the center. He had never served on post before volunteering there.

“You stand out there at midnight, four o’clock in the morning, or three o’clock in the afternoon,” Mr. Kip said. “Five hundred people have walked up to you and said ‘thank you for being here.’ You just have no idea what that’s like.”

Among the highlights, they said, was seeing soldiers at the center decompress from the stresses of their work.

“The guy comes in, you can see he’s all uptight, and by the time he’s leaving he’s had something to eat, played a couple of games, he’s sitting there, and he’s all loose,” Mr. Barton said.

The two said their ties to the military, and the service that comes with it, were something they could not walk away from.

“It’s a part of your life forever,” Mr. Kip said.

Hop in a van driven by Francis J. Murray, who coordinates transportation for the Watertown-area Disabled American Veterans, and you’re likely in for a story from his military retiree passengers.

“It’s a real special time for these guys in the van,” Mr. Murray said. “It’s history you see from their eyes. You’ll never see in a book what they’re telling you.”

Mr. Murray, who served in the Army from 1968 to 1971 as a teletype operator and repairman, has been around the organization since 2010. He took over as coordinator the next year. The volunteering is in addition to three part-time jobs that he holds.

The Watertown region is one of the largest in the state, as drivers pick up patients in several counties for appointments from Watertown all the way to Syracuse. Many of the passengers face financial or medical hardships that would otherwise make the trips impossible.

“It means a lot when a veteran gets out of a van at night and says thank you,” Mr. Murray said.

The local group is seeing an increase in the numbers of drivers, up to 12, with many of them veterans. His advice to his new recruits: keep your ears open.

“I tell all my drivers when they start driving for me, you’re not alone,” he said. “It’s a real brotherhood. That’s the only way you can describe it.”

For Gregory J. Pluhar, a Chicago native who has lived in the area since ending his 23-year Army career at Fort Drum in 2008, helping people has been a way of life since he was a child.

“It’s an uncontrollable urge,” he said. “I will stop and help anybody.”

That thought was reinforced by two tours in Iraq, aiding the Iraqi people while performing nuclear and biological work. Since 2002, Mr. Pluhar has been active with the Philadelphia fire department, before moving to the Evans Mills department.

However, the retired staff sergeant is most visible while on his motorcycle, as one of the ride captains for the area’s Patriot Guard Riders. The group is a fixture at military events on and off Fort Drum.

He has been part of the local organization since 2010, after hearing about it during a group ride in Illinois just before his retirement. Mr. Pluhar became one of two local ride captains in 2012. His first mission as a ride captain: helping escorting the body of Sgt. Daniel Rodriguez, a 10th Mountain Division soldier killed in Afghanistan, from Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield to a Carthage funeral home. He described the experience as “humbling.”

“It’s the actual caring for the individual,” Mr. Pluhar said of his fellow riders. “It’s how they stand there in silent remembrance.”

Asked what his motivation is to remain active helping others, Mr. Pluhar’s response was simple:

“I would want it done for me,” he said. “I want it done for everyone.”


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