After Complex History with Military, Longmont Man Still Serves
As a 17-year-old, Jim Gates couldn’t wait to get into the military. He begged his parents to allow him to join the Navy Reserves in his hometown of Bay City Mich., , but they refused and demanded he go to college.
However, still unsure of what he wanted to major in after two years, he dropped out and was immediately drafted into theAir Force as a mechanic for the 1st Fighter Wing in 1962 . Despite being assigned to Selfridge Air Force Base near his home town and never being deployed, it turns out his parents were right. He hated it.
“The morale was awful in the Air Force,” he said. “We were tasked with protecting the skies over America and my job was to maintain the F106 Delta Dart , which took some 500 pieces equipment do. Everybody that I worked with was drafted and we didn’t like it one bit. The job was hot, noisy, dirty and required long hours.”
This misery, however, not only helped him develop an interest in computer science, which ultimately turned into a successful career with IBM, but it also created a bond with his fellow veterans that would help define the rest of his life.
“Let me put it this way,” he said. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. There’s no greater brotherhood than a group of guys who served in the military. We’re brothers forever because we served our country and stuck together through the good and bad despite the fact that nobody wanted to be there. It was a rotten job, but somebody had to do it. We thought the Soviets going to bomb us coming in from the north, over the polar cap and Canada.”
After four years of active duty and two years in the reserves, when Gates was finally discharged as a sergeant he was appalled by the way things were being run, especially the Veterans Hospital that turned him away for cancer treatments. In fact he was so disillusioned with the idea of military service at time that he even told his son, “if you was ever drafted, I will personally drive you to Canada.”
That negative outlook all changed when Gates met Ralph Bozella , another Vietnam veteran whose wife taught at Northridge Elementary School with Gates’ wife, Judy .
“Surviving the war was tough enough, but the most difficult period of my life was surviving coming home,” Bozella said. “You have to recognize the time. It was the Vietnam era and for the most part military service was not appreciated. There was a lot of negative energy and feelings that you could drown yourself in. That’s why I got involved with the American Legion. It was a healing process and I think that’s what Jim went through too.”
For Gates, it comes down to a sense of service, the basic human need to feel one is making a difference. While he never felt appreciated in the Air Force, he found it tremendously rewarding to help his fellow veterans.
“It’s the value of service, that’s the most important thing,” Bozella said. “When people serve in the military you’re serving to such a degree that you have little control over your own life and what is going to happen to you. That’s a true, high level of service and once a person accepts that I think that value stays in our DNA, it stays in our soul.”
Once Bozella convinced Gates to join the American Legion in 1988, soon after Gates moved to Longmont to work for IBM, he immediately bought in and began volunteering any chance get got. As a result of his commitment, he quickly rose in the ranks, serving on the National Americanism Commission from 2006 to 2013, as the state commander from 2012 to 2013 , as an alternate member of the National Executive Committee from 2013 to 2014 and on the National Americanism Council, which he continues to this day .
As a leader of the American Legion, he made the kind of impact he had always hoped to in the military and even began speaking to young students about the value of serving their county.
Among other accomplishments, he helped develop the Boy Scouts of Colorado , got the Wall of Heroes built at North Ridge Elementary and helped the Hamm family create the Jim Hamm Nature Area in Longmont for their fallen loved one.
The long list of accomplishments drove his fellow legionnaires to elect him a grand marshal of the Longmont Veterans Day Parade , which “knocked [his] socks off.” But what he considers to be his greatest achievement is the creation of the Colorado Veteran’s Kids Fund , which provides financial assistance for financially struggling veterans with kids.
Though there are national programs through the American Legion, like the Temporary Assistance Fund, which can help in this scenario, it can take months for the money to actually arrive. The Colorado Veteran’s Kids Fund can provide needed financial assistance in a day.
“I’m the kind of guy that likes to get (stuff) done and I’ve actually done more for our country since I’ve left the service than I did when I was in it,” he said. “I helped this guy out less than a month ago when our state headquarters called me and said this guy has a problem, he just lost his job, he’s got three kids in the house and he’s behind on his bills.
“I went over that morning and within two hours this guy had cash in his pocket to help him out. One of the bylines with the American Legions is ‘still serving America.’ We might not be in the military anymore but there’s pride in that and that legacy needs to continue.”
John Spina: 303-473-1389, email@example.com or twitter.com/jsspina24