James Childers Jr. joined the Marine Corps in 1952 for one reason.
“I was motivated,” said Childers, city of Jacksonville Veterans Day parade grand marshal.
The motivation stayed with Childers through a 26-year career in the Marine Corps and has stayed with him in retirement as a volunteer and fundraiser for the Disabled American Veterans organization in Onslow County.
It is that motivation and dedication to veterans that earned him recognition as the grand marshal of Saturday’s annual Veterans Day Parade in Jacksonville.
“It’s an honor I never thought I’d receive,” Childers said of being the grand marshal. “I didn’t even think about it. I thought you had to be someone really special to be the grand marshal of a parade.”
Childers, who is 85, has been a member of the DAV for 40 years. He has been a fundraising chairman and has championed the cause of Camp Corral, in which the Golden Corral restaurant and DAV partner to send children of wounded, injured or fallen military service members to summer camp.
Along with that, Childers has spent 18 years on the road driving veterans to their medical appointments at Veterans Administration clinics in Durham, Fayetteville and Wilmington. He has logged 186,816 miles transporting more than 1,460 veterans to their appointments. He has accumulated more than 27,000 hours of volunteer service with the DAV.
The Hubert resident originally from Alexander City, Alabama, said the reason for his dedication is simple.
“It’s a matter of the veterans getting the medical attention they’ve earned and so richly deserve,” Childers said.
One such trip included an 18-hour, 700-mile journey in which he made two trips to the VA hospital in Durham.
“I did not mind one bit, because like I say, veterans are my passion,” said Childers, who received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, one of the state’s highest honors, in 2013.
Childers served as a supply chief while in the Marine Corps. He retired as a master gunnery sergeant in 1979. His service included a tour in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969.
“I had real problems when I came home from Vietnam,” Childers said. “I was in a real nervous condition. I’d hear a big, loud noise and I’d be heading for cover. If you walked up behind me, you were going to get decked because I would knock you flat on your butt. I was in such a nervous condition, I would have a cigarette on my desk lit and I would have one in my hand lighting another. That was before PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) became a household word.”
Childers said he was also exposed to what has been called Agent Orange, chemicals used to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam that later were shown to harm the health of individuals exposed to it.
“I’m not crying about it. I’d do it again,” he said. “I had a good career. I can’t complain about it one bit.”
And so after his Marine Corps career, he went about volunteering for the DAV.
“That was my passion,” he said.
But it’s a passion he knows needs the support of others. He said the DAV continues to be short of volunteer drivers, with about 300 veterans unable to receive transportation to their medical appointments during the last two years.
“There’s a definite need for drivers, no doubt about it,” he said.
Childers works with the Golden Corral in Jacksonville, which provides free meals for veterans for Veterans Day on Nov. 12. He credited the owners and management as well as the wait staff, many of whom he said volunteer to work that day for only tips just to honor the veterans.
Childers’ first wife, Margaret, died in 2000. He married his second wife, Linda, a former DAV auxiliary state commander, in 2007. He has three children.
“I am the most blessed person you’ll ever talk to,” he said. “I’ve had two good spouses in one lifetime, and I mean that, too.”
Knee problems have slowed Childers, but he still makes a point to get out to his front yard, where an American flag and Marine Corps flag fly on separate poles along the roadside.
“I’m an American, I’ve been fortunate enough to serve my country and I’m proud to look out every morning and see my flag flying, instead of a German or Japanese flag flying,” he said. “That’s the last thing I look at at night and the first thing I look at in the morning, those flags flying. I’m really proud of those colors.”
The parade is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. Saturday at Coastal Carolina Community College along Western Boulevard.
“It’s going to be a day like I’ve never had before. I guarantee you that,” Childers said. “It’s going to be a day to remember.”