Wearing a zip-up sweatshirt over his hospital gown, a toothless man wheeled himself down the middle of a hallway of the Marshall Health and Rehabilitation Center. Thunder clapped overhead and lights flickered as the power threatened to fail.

The man’s slurred shouts began bouncing off the walls, down the corridor.

“Help me! Help me!” the man cried out to no one in particular before a nurse quickly came to his side calmly speaking soothing words of comfort.

Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post #9225 Commander Willard “Bill” Crowder did not flinch at the scene as he hobbled down the hall, leaning to the left due to a bad leg, as he followed Post Trustee Darrel Freund from room to room.

For Crowder, this was not an unusual occurrence at 207 Marshall Drive in Perry, Fla., where VFW members visit the resident veterans three to four times per month.

Crowder dedicates 20 to 30 hours each week to VFW programs when he is not coordinating trap and release animal efforts with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC) for his company, RB Nuisance Animal Control, or managing his store, Grandpa’s Trading Post, with his wife Rosa.

“We come to nursing homes to find these veterans that need help. We raise money to buy them underwear, socks — or anything else they may need. We take care of the veterans that took care of us,” Crowder said.

Crowder explained the VFW is a non-profit veterans service organization that works to assist veterans, their families and the community through fundraising, troop support, youth activities and scholarship programs.

As a veteran with a deep sense of patriotism, Crowder became a member of the VFW in 1974 to make a difference for veterans in distress. After initially joining a post in Hamilton County, Florida, Crowder transferred to Post #9225 in Taylor County five years ago, choosing to drive more than an hour to be a part of a more active post.He was elected as Post #9225 Commander in February 2018.

“This post has more comradeship, more community, does more things to help veterans and is more veteran-focused. Post #9225 does not have a bar, so we are not just sitting around drinking and talking,” Crowder said.

Crowder said the VFW and Post #9225 visit local schools to teach kids about history and the Constitution, raise money for veterans through “Buddy Poppy” distributions and help many of the veterans in Taylor County and neighboring counties that have no
one.

Crowder enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1957 for three years, serving just under two years at Fort Jackson in South Carolina and 13 months overseas.

“Korea, 13 months. First Calvary Division, Third Medium Tank Battalion, 40th Armor,” Crowder said, summing up his foreign combat experience, momentary hesitation punctuating his words.

While enlisted with the U.S. Army, Crowder was a gunner on a tank in Korea during the post-war time of 1958. He was 19 years old.

“I do not talk about that,” Crowder said firmly when asked about his personal experiences in Korea.

At the time of Crowder’s deployment, the First Cavalry Division was assigned the mission of patrolling the “Freedom’s Frontier” Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the southern border of Korea. The First Cavalry’s objective was to hold its position for 24 hours until support could be mobilized if attacked by enemy forces, as it was the only U.S. division in direct contact with the enemy.

“Back in 1957, you either went to school or got drafted. A bunch of us boys decided to enlist to see the world and serve our country. It was just a thing people did back then,” Crowder said.

As Crowder and Freund continued talking with veterans individually, they came upon a veteran who Crowder said reminded him of the way war permanently changes and damages American service men and women.

Sitting in the middle of a hallway, with his back to Crowder and Freund, was a figure slumped in a wheelchair. The tag hanging off the back of the chair read: “Green, James. Room 608B.”

As Crowder approached from behind, Green turned — his pronounced cheekbones and stubbled-chin — gone white with age — peeked out from under the brim of a cap he was wearing.

“Green, I’m Bill Crowder. How are you?” Crowder said as he greeted Green and
extended his right arm for a hand shake. Green looked up at the man standing over him, smiled, and shakily took Crowder’s hand.

Crowder presented Green with a navy blue baseball cap, embroidered with “Army” in capital yellow lettering across the front, while stating, “Here is that hat you told us you wanted.”

Green’s eyes lit up at the sight of the cap.

“Thank you, thank you,” Green said as he took off the black and blue hat he was wearing. As he adjusted the Velcro backing of the cap, Green slipped from the present into the past.

Looking up suddenly, Green’s voice rose in panic, “Where is the parachute? You were supposed to bring parachutes. How are we going to get out of this plane alive without our parachutes?” while his eyes darted between the hat in his hands and the three people standing in front of him.

Crowder patted Green on the shoulder and sighed, “It is going to be all right, Green. It is going to be all right.” After reassuring his fellow veteran, Crowder continued down the hall, limping on to the next veteran.

“War is hell. We don’t need any more of that,” Crowder said with a grimace as he shook his head.

Through the VFW, Crowder routinely works with homeless veterans who are unable to come back to society because they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), helping them to apply for grants, disability benefits and re-connect with their families and society.

“Due to combat stress or whatever happened to them in the military, they aren’t the same. It affects their wives, husbands, children, mothers and fathers. Everyone feels the pain caused by time spent in combat zones,” Crowder said.

Crowder considers himself one of the “lucky ones,” as he only suffers from a service-related hearing disability in his right ear due to the echoing noise of shooting 90-millimeter tank guns inside what was essentially a metal
box.

“The gun was in my right ear. I have tinnitus so bad, sometimes I can’t hear over the ringing,” Crowder said after apologizing for continuously leaning in to hear what the veterans were saying during their conversations.

Motioning to the left sleeve of his white-collared shirt, Crowder explained the significance of the black patch placed there. Embroidered in white lettering, the patch read: “POW * MIA. You are not forgotten.”

“This is for the people that never came home. There are 124,000 prisoners of war (POW) and missing in action (MIA) from World War I (WWI) to now. We have 25 cemeteries across the water that are full of some 130,000 American soldiers,” Crowder said.

“I know from war time with explosives, John Doe might be right next to you one minute and gone the next. There are a lot of MIA — especially in Korea and Vietnam,” Crowder continued. “We need to go find our missing soldiers and bring them home. Their families need to know. They need closure.”

Post Trustee Darrel Freund retired from the U.S. Army in 2013 as a major after 21-and-a-half years of service and 10 years overseas.

He became a member of the VFW in February 2018, and was appointed by the post committee as one of three Post #9225 trustees in April. Freund has worked alongside Crowder for 10 months.

“I have found Crowder’s leadership, dedication, commitment and passion for helping veterans and the community to be above reproach. Crowder is an excellent role model for all the other veterans and has a wealth of knowledge about veteran programs in the area,” Freund said.

Freund said that even though Crowder manages two other businesses, he still treats his responsibilities as VFW commander as if it were a full-time job, making himself available 24/7.

“Every time I see him, he is doing something for the VFW,” Freund said.

In recent months, Crowder has been working to get the community and Post #9225 more involved. Through the VFW post, Crowder said his goal is to make sure veterans and their families are getting the assistance they need — whether it be financially, physically or emotionally.

“In working with the community, we can get more support, more feedback and connect with more veterans in need,” Crowder said.

As Veterans Day approaches, Crowder is spending his time between running his businesses, visiting veterans and preparing for “Buddy Poppy Day,” the bi-annual distribution of hand-assembled artificial red flower pins by the needy and disabled veterans organized by the VFW.

The “Buddy Poppies” will be distributed at five locations in Perry on Nov. 10 in honor of the blood shed by American service men and women.

“There are fields of beautiful red poppies across the water. The color red just stretches out across the fields like a blanket,” Crowder said, recalling the image of Flanders Field near Belgium just before a frown formed on his
face.

“Nearly 700,000 service men and women have died since WWI, and there are 20 million of us that have served. No matter which branch you are from, we are brothers. I will stand up for him, and he will stand up for me. I do this, and will continue to do this, because he gave his time to protect America and our way of life and our Constitution. Without those, we would not be living free,” Crowder said.

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