VFW vice commander talks about vets’ needs, his service

With Veterans Day coming up Sunday, Nov. 11, the senior vice commander of the Sgt. John Rice VFW in Blaine took some time to discuss the biggest needs of veterans.

Gary Exley, vice commander of the Sgt. John Rice VFW in Blaine. Photo by Eric Hagen
Gary Exley, vice commander of the Sgt. John Rice VFW in Blaine. Photo by Eric Hagen

Gary Exley said readjusting to society has always been the biggest issue facing veterans returning from a war. He went through this himself when returning from Vietnam. U.S. troops have been going through this most recently with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There are differences, Exley said. He had one deployment to Vietnam. A lot of troops today have multiple deployments.

Exley wonders about the effect this has, especially when they go back to the war zone after being back with their family and friends for a short time.

When troops come home, their body may be there, but their mind is thousands of miles away and thinking about what happened, according to Exley. There is a feeling of separation and it can be hard to talk about what happened, Exley said.

It is important to stay close to your family and eventually they can come around if given time, he said.

Everyone is different of course, but Exley said in general it is best to be there for them, but not just to sympathize.

“My wife once told me, ‘Don’t go looking for the man you used to be. He’s not there,’” he said.

The troops coming home today are treated much better than Vietnam vets were, for which Exley is thankful.

“I’m glad to see attention being paid to the veterans today and the respect given to them that wasn’t given to us,” Exley said.

It was so bad for Exley that he was denied membership to his local VFW when he tried to sign up in the 1970s.

Today, Exley said a challenge is to get the younger veterans to sign up so the VFW can be passed onto the next generation. Exley would like to see more veterans in their late 20s or early 30s join the VFW.

The VFW’s goal is to be as visible as possible in the community and to keep recruiting new members by showing people what they do to help others.

There are a lot of ways veterans can get help, Exley said. They just have to know where to look and ask for it.

Blaine and Spring Lake Park are both Yellow Ribbon communities, meaning there is an organized network of people who will do whatever they can to help current military service members, veterans and their families.

The person to contact in Blaine is Rebecca Olson at 763-785-6120 or [email protected] Spring Lake Park lists several people on the contact list for its Beyond the Yellow Ribbon committee, but the city contact is Mayor Cindy Hansen at 763-482-2834 and the veterans organization contact is Kraus Hartig VFW Post Commander Dan LaCroix at 763-458-0479.

Blaine recently hosted its first major event since becoming a Yellow Ribbon Community. The Sgt. John Rice VFW had an Octoberfest event Oct. 13 that was much more than a pig roast and a concert. There were 19 companies on-hand ready to interview and offer jobs to veterans.

Exley was glad to see the patriotism these companies showed and said that veterans should not be afraid to tell companies they are a veteran when looking for work. It may help them in their job search.

“Don’t be afraid to use the veteran card. You earned it,” is Exley’s message to veterans.

Exley’s service

Exley was on active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1963 to 1967 and then on inactive duty for two more years. He enlisted in the Marine Corps during his freshman year at the University of Minnesota because he wanted a challenge.

Exley was stationed in Guam for 18 months guarding a Naval base. In January 1966 he shipped out to Okinawa, Japan, where they prepared to go to Vietnam. He was with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines regiment.

His Marine Corps unit was first based in Chu Lai in Vietnam. Later in the summer of 1966 they went near the DMZ line to stall the invasion of the North Vietnamese into South Vietnam.

In late 1966 and into early 1967, they were in the An Hoa Basin in South Vietnam. Instead of fighting a more traditional battle, they had to deal with booby traps and mines.

Not long after the calendar turned to the year 1967, the U.S. military came up with Operation Tuscaloosa to take out Viet Cong in the area. Exley received a Purple Heart medal because he got shrapnel in his neck during this battle, which the Americans won.

Exley said his time in the Marine Corps was well spent because it made him the person he is today. A famous Marine Corps saying is “semper fidelis,” which is Latin for “always faithful” or “always loyal.” When he meets someone who is a Marine, they feel like brothers.

After he was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, he went back to college and then worked for the Hilton Hotels company for a few years. After leaving the hotel company, he got into the trucking business. For the next 38 years until he retired, Exley traveled all over the country.

Not long after he retired from driving a truck, however, he began to drive a school bus for the Robbinsdale School District, which he still does to this day.

Eric Hagen is at [email protected]