AARP Oregon veteran volunteers share their stories

Posted on 11/23/20 by Carmel Snyder

AARP Oregon volunteers come from all walks of life. Oregonians ranked third among all states in the number of its residents who volunteer, according to AmeriCorps. Veterans volunteer and give to charity at twice the rate than anyone else. So, it’s no surprise to find veterans among the AARP Oregon volunteer rolls.

November is the time to honor all our Veteran, military and their families. We’re taking this occasion to share just a few of the stories from our veteran volunteers.

Robert Miller, U.S. Navy

Robert Miller was drafted in 1970 just as he was starting art school.

“I decided I wanted to be in the Navy since I had to go,” he said. “What I did not know was what it meant to be an unrated deck seaman.”

Robert was stationed on the U.S.S. Oklahoma City, CLG-5, a WWII vessel. Because it was the command vessel for the fleet, the Cleveland-class light cruiser vessel had a beautiful teakwood main deck. Fortunately, Robert had spotted a dark room on the ship, and as luck would have it, the ship needed a photographer.

“I stepped up right away, and became the staff photographer. Otherwise, I would have been sweeping and mopping those beautiful decks the whole time.”

The ship supported ground troops in Vietnam. The Oklahoma City fired the first successful combat surface-to-surface missile shot in US Navy history, using the new Talos RIM-8H anti-radiation missile to destroy a North Vietnamese mobile air control radar van.

Robert in SE Asia.jpeg

Robert’s duties included photographing diplomatic events, events and daily life on the ship and occasionally hopping on a helicopter and going into critical war areas to photograph staging areas to help the war effort on the ground.

“We took fire sometimes,” he said. “That was part of it. Overall, it was an important experience, and loved being at sea.”

After 22 months, Robert applied for an early out. He wanted to go home and start his career.

“I didn’t really expect that it would be approved,” he said. ”But they came in told me it was approved and I had about an hour to pack my bag. The helicopter came out to the ship, and I watched it disappear as we flew off. A week later, I was state side.”

He used the G.I. Bill to launch back into his education, finishing art school at the University of Oregon and earning a Master of Fine Arts from the School of Art Institute in Chicago. He continued as a photographer, but leaned toward the more creative side of the field.

“I don’t think my younger self would have taken any advice that I had to give now,” he said. “I was too headstrong.

“If this hadn’t worked out, I would have really enjoyed being a photojournalist. My time in the military was good. It’s a great experience for a young person.”

Inklings of his future career as an artist and educator might have been coming through even as a young seaman on the ship. Robert enlisted his fellow shipmates to create a gallery of photos that depicted life on the ship on a wall of the ship’s galley.

“I think if I could go back, I’d let myself know that I really did have options," Robert said. "A military career would not have been so bad. I made the right decision, but it’s nice to know there was another road if this one didn’t work out.” 

Bill Habel, U.S. Marine Corps

At 16, Bill Habel was not doing well in school, he was looking for options. So he did what no one expected of a 16-year-old. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps

“They told me I needed permission from my parents and back then no one ever had their birth certificates. So they said if my father told them I was 17, then I could go in,” Bill said. “I went into the Marine Corps in 1951, and served in Korea.”

After he returned home, Bill went to his old high school and was able to pass a test to earn the first General Equivalency Diploma (GED) that school would issue. He went to college under the G.I. bill then enlisted in the Navy and went to Navy Flight School. His career as a U.S. Navy pilot was cut short after he developed his vision needed correcting with eye glasses.

“The Marine Corps gave me stability,” he said. "Who knows how life would have turned out if I had not taken this path?"

Bill went on to learn a law degree at night while working for a congressional office and raising a family.

“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “In the end, I was a so-so student. But it launched my career.”

He and his family lived in Utah, but Bill still worked on important social issues with organizations such as the ACLU and labor unions that often took him to Washington, D.C.“

The late Sen. Wayne Morse, a Democrat from Oregon used to tell me all the time, when you get tired of looking at rocks, come out to Oregon and learn how to hike,” Bill shared, laughing at the memory. “We came to Portland and realized we really did like it here,” he added.

Bill is modest about his work in Washington D.C., but he recalls a friend who worked with Robert Kennedy enlisting his help to raise money to establish an educational television station.

“That was 1968, we raised the first million to start the station that would go on to become P.B.S. I guess you can say that’s my claim to fame.”

Bill’s advice to his younger self was simple. “Listen to your gut. Be yourself. Whatever everybody else expects and thinks you should do is not important.”

Yvonne Gergen, USAF

“I’ve always felt I should be counted as a veteran,” said Yvonne Gergen, a Vietnam-era veteran who worked in hospital and clinical records administration. Her squadron in Rhein Main Air Base in Germany assisted with medical evacuations from Vietnam.

The last of four children in her family in Nebraska, Yvonne had just graduated from college when she told her parents she wanted to join the U.S. Air Force. Though, it was not common in the 1970s for young women to join, her parents supported her decision.

“It just felt right,” Yvonne said. Because of her skills in health information technology, Yvonne, worked in records administration. Her first duty station was in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and then she spent the rest of her active duty tenure in Germany.

Yvonne said her main reason for joining was the opportunity to travel and be a part of something bigger. Yvonne was able to fulfill both dreams. She traveled to different countries while living in Europe, and her work was rewarding in many ways, she said.

“One of my favorite things was the uniform,” she said. “It’s hard to explain, but I was really proud to wear that uniform. I was proud to live in the barracks that had the sign "Women of the Air Force" as you came in. I really learned a lot about the world from everyone I worked with from other airman to the nurses and doctors.”

Yvonne in Uniform (3).jpg

Yvonne said her transition back to civilian life was not difficult. Her skills transferred easily when she moved to Las Vegas to be near her partner. She worked in medical records management at a local hospital before settling in Oregon.  Yvonne had a long career at Legacy Health System. 

It was after her partner passed away, that Yvonne found AARP. She saw an article about NeighborWalks, a volunteer-led program that began in Portland.

“I was feeling a bit lost. When I read this it reminded me of Volksmarching, something that I had encountered when I was in Germany, and I loved the social aspect of it as well,” she said. “I just thought ‘this is kind of cool,’ so I joined.”

Other AARP volunteers who participated in the NeighborWalks talked to Yvonne about other AARP volunteer opportunities and advocacy efforts on issues such as age-friendly communities and caregiving.

“I’ve also helped at different events, such as Movies for Grown-ups,” Yvonne said. “I have been very fortunate to have found my niche in health information administration, for experiences in the Air Force to finding AARP.  

“My career choice of Health Information Management had a lot to do with my successful Air Force assignments and experiences. It has supported me all my post-college life and helped me bring organizational skills to AARP.  Self-confidence was gained throughout these years.  This has allowed me to enjoy my AARP experiences even more," she said.

"I benefitted from the advice of AARP’s caregiver resources when I was a caregiver for several years. And now the NeighborWalks program is my passion. It resonates with me. #WeAreWalkingHere.”

Tom Kelley, U.S. Army

Tom Kelley responded to an ad for volunteers to AARP Oregon’s volunteer executive council, a leadership role.

“I thought it sounded interesting when I read the article, and knew it would be a good fit,” Tom said.

He will have served eight years when his term ends in 2021. “I was fortunate to find an organization that’s doing so much on issues that are relevant to me and others,” he said. But, those who work with him know it was AARP that was fortunate Tom responded to the ad.

Tom is no stranger to fitting into a leadership roles. Tom went straight from his college ROTC to the Army and assigned to Fort Ord in California as a training officer. He spent a year in Vietnam as a military advisor to the leaders of a 450 Vietnamese battalion before rotating back home. He finished his military tour of duty at the Army recruiting station in Seattle.

“I was only guaranteed to be home for a few months before they sent me back to Vietnam,” he said. “So one day when I had leave, I put on a business suit and interviewed with United Airlines.

”Tom worked as a human resource representative before taking a job in financial services. He worked his way up to vice president of Ben Franklin Savings and Loan and other financial institutions.  He still maintains a busy schedule working for H.R. Consulting providing leadership training and market development.

“My advice to my younger self and to young people today is to take more chances,” Tom said. “The Army built my self-confidence, and I’m fortunate to have served. I guess the best advice I can give comes from Wayne Gretzky, ‘You’ll always miss the shots you never take.’  So take those shots.”

(Tom Kelly video)

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