Brian Francisco | Washington editor
Bonnie Shelton was on furlough in London when a Nazi buzz bomb whizzed past the house where she was staying.
“I looked out the window and saw that bomb go right between our building and another building,” said Shelton, who was stationed in England during World War II as a private in the Women’s Army Corps.
Howard Parker Rice Jr. was an Army captain with a logistics command in South Vietnam. An engineer, Rice described his role as a troubleshooter for artillery and tanks during his 1966-67 deployment during the Vietnam War.
“I was one of the lucky ones. I came out of that OK,” Rice said.
Now decades removed from their military service, both Rice and Shelton continue to serve.
Shelton, 93, volunteers in the gift shop at St. Joseph Hospital. Rice, 76, is the military liaison for Volunteer Center @ RSVP, where he developed an income tax preparation program for military families.
Rice has been named this year’s recipient of the Individual Philanthropist of the Year Award given by the Association of Fundraising Professionals Northeast Indiana Chapter. He will receive the honor on Tuesday morning at Trinity English Lutheran Church.
“I’m getting this award, but there’s a hell of a lot of people around this town, veterans, who have done a lot more,” Rice said.
Different wars, different eras, different people. But both Rice and Shelton still feel compelled to serve.
“The first thing I did when I moved here is volunteer at the hospital,” said Shelton, who came to Fort Wayne 22 years ago. “I just like to work. I’ve always worked.”
Sense of duty
In a 2009 survey, Civic Enterprise, a public-policy organization, found that 92 percent of military veterans of the Iraq-Afghanistan era want to serve their communities when they return home.
The New York Times recently reported on various non-profit groups that have been engaging returning veterans in public service. Among them are The Mission Continues, which pays stipends to veterans to work for non-profit organizations, and Team Rubicon, a volunteer network that has provided emergency aid after natural disasters, including in Haiti and Joplin, Mo.
A study by Indiana University published this year by Public Administration Review observed that “military service is positively related to measures of civic engagement, such as volunteering,” according to authors David Reingold, professor associate dean at IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, and Rebecca Nesbit, assistant professor of non-profit management at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.
“The relationship between military service and volunteering is complex, however,” Reingold and Nesbit wrote. “Black and Hispanic veterans are more likely to volunteer than both their nonveteran counterparts and white veterans. Married veterans are also more likely to volunteer than single veterans. Finally, veterans over the age of 65 are more likely to volunteer upon leaving the service than veterans from younger age groups. This provides evidence that exposure to institutional military life, at least for some groups of people, leads to greater civic engagement.”
Follow the action
In addition to her volunteer work at St. Joseph Hospital, Shelton used to be a volunteer at Matthew 25 Health and Dental Clinic. She also was a leader for Girl Scouts, Brownies, Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts when her children were growing up.
Shelton grew up in Evansville as Bernita (Bonnie) Baker and was working for an oil broker in Houston when she and a friend – also named Bonnie – joined the WAC.
“I always loved geography and history,” Shelton said. “I wanted to go overseas. … That’s where the action was. For someone who liked history and had studied wars, that’s where I wanted to go, where I could be of help.”
She was stationed in Norwich, on England’s east coast, for a couple of years during World War II, working in administration, writing mission reports for a general, finding maps.
“I did whatever came up,” she said.
After the war, she learned to fly and got her pilot’s license through the G.I. Bill, but she ended up attending the University of California, Berkeley.
“I thought, I’m not going to have money to fly all my life,” Shelton recalled. “Where am I going to fly to? I’m not that adventurous.”
She returned to Evansville after her father died and went on a blind date with Arthur Shelton, a World War II veteran who was visiting from Peoria, Ill. On their second date, talk turned to marriage.
“You just know those things,” she said.
They wed in 1954. The couple ran various businesses, including leasing commercial trash compactors and selling waterproof tailgates for off-road equipment.
Her husband died 22 years ago, and she moved to Fort Wayne, where her son lives. She has two daughters, one of whom also lives in Fort Wayne.
Shelton was among 80 area veterans who traveled to Washington, D.C., in June to see the National World War II Memorial.
Their trip was organized by Honor Flight Northeast Indiana, a non-profit organization that raises money for WWII veterans to visit the memorial.
Rice, whose father served in World War II and the Korean War, said he “grew up all over the country.” He lived in Abilene, Texas, for two years – first grade and 12th grade.
He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in electrical engineering, joined the Army National Guard in 1953 and was commissioned as an officer in 1959.
“I found out I sort of liked it and stayed,” he said.
Rice was stationed in South Korea as well as in South Vietnam and spent 31 years in the Army, the National Guard or the Reserves, working for a time at the Pentagon as a reserve officer and retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He said that “Agent Orange got to me finally,” attributing his coronary artery disease to exposure to the defoliant the U.S. sprayed during the Vietnam War in an effort to remove cover for Communist guerrillas.
Rice worked for defense contractors along the way, arriving in Fort Wayne in 1995 as an engineer for what was then Magnavox Electronic Systems but would soon become part of Raytheon. He was a systems engineer for Raytheon’s Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System. He retired from the company in 2006.
Rice and his wife, Ruth, have two daughters. One is a civilian working for the Navy, and a granddaughter is a member of the Coast Guard Reserve.
The RSVP military tax-preparation program that Rice developed is in its third year. Many of its clients are families associated with the city’s military posts: the Air National Guard’s 122nd Fighter Wing and the Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 293rd Infantry.
Asked what he gets out volunteering, Rice said, “Just the pleasure when somebody says, ‘I figured my taxes and I owed X amount of dollars, and now you’ve figured that I’m getting money back.’ That’s worth an awful lot right there.”
Rice also is a member of Fort Wayne Chapter 40 of Disabled American Veterans, belongs to military officers associations and was in a PTA in New Jersey when his children were in school.
But Rice wishes he could do more.
Many veterans are returning from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with dim prospects. Their rates of unemployment, homelessness and mental-health disorders are higher than for the general population. More than 100 homeless or indigent veterans received clothing, meals and medical attention Oct. 21 at Matthew 25 during the annual Healthy Cities Health Fair and Veterans Stand Down in Fort Wayne.
“It’s not really new. It’s just that for the first time we are acknowledging it and doing something about it,” Rice said about the challenges faced by returning veterans.
Legislation is advancing in Congress to give tax credits to companies that hire unemployed veterans, and the Department of Veterans Affairs has begun a program to build permanent housing, including in Fort Wayne, for homeless veterans.
“I feel so sorry for them because they are not finding jobs,” Shelton said. “They are not being understood.”
And Shelton shares the sentiment, and mentions the Veterans Affairs Medical Center where she goes to receive medications.
“I think I should volunteer there, too,” she said.