Local Heroes: Four Veterans Share Their Stories

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Read about their service and sacrifice and how they found family at the new upgraded American Legion Post 6 in Chapel Hill

Photography by John Michael Simpson

As a first-generation immigrant, Sgt. Tony Garcia heard often of the “American dream” The Texas-born, Wyoming-bred Tony started on his own dream from a young age, beginning with rigorous labor. “I worked the fields from about 9 to 13 before I was old enough to work on construction jobs,” he says. His grandfather, a veteran and pioneer Mexican/American Indian member of the Army National Guard, raised him and was a big influence. Tony joined the service in 2007, signing up for the Army as a paratrooper.

“[I] grew up in a small town, and the coolest guys who came through were [part of an] airborne [division],” he says. While Tony spent his time jumping out of planes as infantry, he specialized in infiltrations and airfield seizures in Iraq and Afghanistan. “As a sniper team leader, [I] carried out many missions [with my team] that saved American lives,” Tony says.

Leaving the service in late 2013, Tony worked first for several years as a nuclear welder, earning a six-figure salary. Ambitious as ever, he decided to enroll in a commercial diving school where he became an underwater demolition expert, a role that took him all over the country.

“It was pretty intense … the [shallowest] depth I did was 800 feet,” Tony says. Even with a new and exhilarating career, Tony, a father of four, was feeling homesick. “The money was good, but I was a stranger to my family,” he says. “I came home and tried to find a purpose, and I started visiting my local American Legion.”

After finding work with the Durham Veterans Affairs as a projects manager, Tony spent time at Post 6 of the American Legion. There, he listened to the heroic stories of other veterans. “I started talking to these guys, really finding a motivation to stay a part of the veteran community and decided to run for commander [of Post 6].” Tony says. “It’s the only position I’ve ever held with the American Legion, which is crazy,” he says as not only the first Hispanic commander of Post 6 but also the youngest at 33.

One of Tony’s goals is to appeal to younger generations and impart to them that joining the service doesn’t have to mean “pulling triggers” or being on the front lines. “The military is not a final option or the bottom line. There are plenty of jobs out there,” he says. “You can excel at a career where you would have a retirement at a very young age.” –By James Dupree 

Most people spend their careers building their legacy. Capt. Bruce Runberg’s legacy takes the form of actual buildings all over the UNC campus, the country and the world. That includes the new American Legion Post 6 in Orange County, the design and construction of which he oversaw as project manager. Born and raised in Bloomington, Minnesota, Bruce graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1964 and entered the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps just as the conflict in Vietnam was escalating into war. He served three tours of duty in Vietnam over the next five years, building airfields, hospitals and roads for the Navy and the Marines.

Particularly challenging were roads in Vinh Dai, along the demilitarized zone. Armed with rock crushers to reduce local river rock to gravel and barrels of asphalt shipped from back home, Bruce supervised building and paving in this crucial combat area. “It made a big difference because the Viet Cong were mining the roads, and it was much easier for them to mine a dirt road than an asphalt road,” Bruce recalls. “It was really a challenging endeavor. But we did well.”

In his 28 years of service, Bruce served in Scotland and all around the United States, managing such projects as the shoreside facility at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial in Hawaii and the hangar for Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base outside of the nation’s capital. Along the way, he met his wife, Cynthia, in Charleston, South Carolina, and they had two sons, Trevor and Courtney.

Bruce retired from the Navy in 1992, and his family settled in Chapel Hill where he became the director of facility services at UNC. It was good timing for an engineer to arrive on campus – the North Carolina Higher Education Bond Program opened the floodgates for the funding of capital projects.

“We usually got about one major project per year, and during that era, we ended up getting 50,” Bruce says, joking that his sons – both Tar Heel grads – spent their college years walking between campus buildings that he had built for them. “My work in the Navy translated very readily to my work at UNC.”

After 23 years at UNC, Bruce retired in 2015, but he hasn’t stopped building things. Now 78, he is proud to serve fellow veterans through his management of the American Legion post project, as well as the fundraising and construction of the Orange County Veterans Memorial in Chapel Hill.

“I feel rewarded that I was able to use my experience and education to help move along most of these projects,” Bruce says. “With things opening up a little bit with COVID-19, there have been more opportunities to get together, and I hope that will continue.” –By Chris Vitiello 

The new American Legion Post 6 will host plenty of meaningful ceremonies over the years, but none will be happier than Maj. Elmer Hughes’ 100th birthday party this past March.

As Elmer entered the post home, the sergeant-at-arms clanged the post’s ship’s bell, and his fellow members stood to salute him. Everyone enjoyed a special tres leches cake filled with strawberries and pineapple and topped with colorful whipped cream roses.

Elmer may be 100 years old, but he remembers his idyllic childhood on Maryland’s Eastern Shore like it was yesterday. Born in 1921 in the village of Tyaskin, Maryland, Elmer recalls days spent on the Nanticoke River. “I grew up sort of a Tom Sawyer-type kid and took joy in boating, fishing, crabbing and swimming. You name it, I did it,” he says with a touch of boyish glee in his voice.

Those halcyon days ended abruptly his junior year of high school when Elmer’s father died. The family lost their house and moved to Delaware during the Great Depression. Unable to find work, Elmer joined the service. He expressed interest in joining the artillery, but the recruiting sergeant had a quota for the Air Force and talked him into it. Soon enough, he was flying B-18s on anti-submarine patrols out of Puerto Rico.

After a stretch with a squadron based in Guatemala City, Guatemala, flying eight-hour patrols in the Pacific, Elmer went to India with the 20th Bomber Command. Grounded due to a vision problem, he inspected all equipment on three squadrons of B-29 aircraft there.

“We operated [over the Himalayas] with forward bases in China,” he remembers. “We would ferry gas and bombs for several days up to A1 [base] in China and then fly up to China, refuel, load bombs and make a strike on the mainland in Japan, and back to A1, and back home. It was quite a cumbersome way of handling things.”

As WWII drew to a close, Elmer returned to Maryland through the Green Project and was discharged just before V-J Day in 1945. After getting married to his wife, Kit, Elmer re-enlisted and she joined him, enlisting herself. They would raise three sons together and move back and forth between North Carolina and Maryland over the years, but Chapel Hill became their home.

Kit taught reading and English for Orange County Schools for 24 years. Elmer became a real estate and insurance broker and retired from the service as a major in 1976. After a transient youth, he has enjoyed seeing Chapel Hill’s growth over a half-century.

“We met some of the finest people who we’ve ever met anywhere,” Elmer says, recollecting UNC Chancellor R.B. House’s harmonica performances at summertime watermelon picnics on campus. “And the university was very kind to me when my mother died. We just became attached to Chapel Hill.” Echoing how he joined the Air Force, Elmer became an American Legion member through some good-natured coercion. He asked the local legion post to sponsor an Air Explorer Squadron – a Boy Scouts Explorer program extension that follows branches of the armed services. In exchange for the sponsorship, the post asked Elmer to join.

Looking back, he has no regrets. “We felt like we had lived two or three lives. We both enjoyed the military,” Elmer says of his life with his beloved Kit, who died two years ago. “I’m a very strong patriot and an American.” –By Chris Vitiello 

“My number was up. … I was going to be drafted,” Staff Sgt. Jim Parise says, recalling his mindset as a 19-year-old in 1966. But Jim was prepared to serve, as his father – and most of his male relatives – had done in World War II. “It was a duty and honor thing,” he says. Jim enlisted, serving four years with the Army Security Agency. While the war in Vietnam raged on, Jim was stationed in West Germany as an intercept equipment repair technician, later working in motor vehicle repair and as an intelligence analyst.

In those four years, Jim traveled throughout Europe from Lapland in the Arctic Circle down to the bottom tip of Italy to the British Isles. “Just [the traveling] alone was extraordinary,” he says.

After leaving the military in 1970, Jim found a career in construction, later joining the steamfitter’s union. “There I found my true passion – commercial refrigeration,” he says. In 1988, Jim formed his own corporation and spent 33 years building and servicing supermarkets, ice skating rinks and more.

In 2010, he drove solo across the U.S., starting from his home in Syracuse, New York. After a year and a half on the road, he settled in North Carolina.

It was while attending a ceremony for the Orange County Veterans Memorial that Jim met Lewis Atwater (commander of neighboring District 12), who eventually convinced him to attend the weekly American Legion meetings. “Everybody welcomed me. I felt like I had walked into a family,” he says. Jim has been the memorial brick sales manager and served a few years as sergeant-at-arms. Now he is the third vice commander and the facility manager and serves on the building committee for the new Post 6 location.

One thing Jim hopes to clarify is the role of Post 6 within the community, saying, “I keep running into the idea that the American Legion is just a bar. That’s not true. This is a family place,” he says. “When you come through the door, you’re my brother or sister. Our mission is to help veterans and their families, no matter what.” –By James Dupree

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