This post is a part of the Hero Chronicles Series, highlighting U.S. military Veterans and their families served by the Home Depot Foundation’s “Celebration of Service.” Over 200 Veterans homes and facilities are being repaired and upgraded in the two-month campaign, which will conclude on Veterans Day.
A spry 71 year-old Clyde Kment looked as if he was ready to jump up and go for a jog. He sat on the edge of the bed in his Vancouver, Washington home wearing a sweat suit, and leaning casually on one arm. He was laughing as his wife Fuji, in broken Japanese-English, explained that he would weave quite a tale if only I stuck around long enough. With 20 years in the U.S. Army, six out of six brothers who joined the military, a father who served in both the Army Air Corps and the Infantry through World War II, and his own sweet tale of the beautiful Japanese girl he met during an overseas tour in the early 60′s, he had plenty of story to tell. “She was the only one who could beat me in ping-pong” he explained, as they both chuckled like fifty years together had passed in an instant. It was wonderful after traveling the country to interview Veterans for Home Depot to meet such a robust servicemember right here in my own hometown.
But Clyde’s tone changed when he got to 1968. After sending his wife and two daughters to live in Japan, he arrived in the Central Highlands of Vietnam just two days into the Tet Offensive. As a young man with very little military service behind him and no combat experience, he told me he saw more dead bodies in his first 48 hours than he saw the rest of his time in country. “I don’t talk much about my time there” he pointed out. “But I’ll tell you this much – I couldn’t stand violence after that. I couldn’t even go to a boxing match after I came home. It changed me.”
Clyde, who retired as a Master Sergeant, told me about how he spent most of his time after that as an Army recruiter based in the Pacific Northwest, and I could see how perfectly he was situated for the job. He explained that in those days the job was part public affairs, part compassion, and part story-telling. He clearly still had all those skills intact, despite his recent diagnosis.
A few short months ago Clyde was walking around his house, up and down the stairs, wondering why his back hurt. He was working out every day, running and even pumping iron for an hour at a time, but his muscles still felt as if they were weakening. He was an avid gardener with a manicured lawn and perfectly pruned trees heavy with buds, but he could no longer lift his arms high enough to tend them. After a barrage of tests, doctors finally identified the cause of his problems: ALS, also known as Lou Gherig’s Disease. In just four weeks time he had lost the ability to walk on his own. “I didn’t know it until I got the disease, but Veterans are actually twice as likely to get ALS,” he explained.
He couldn’t walk around his property to see the improvements being made by the Home Depot volunteers that day without the aid of the walker and leg brace sitting at the end of the bed. But that didn’t stop him. He ventured out to say thank you, to instruct volunteers about the quirks of starting his mower, and to explain how to transplant an enormous bamboo plant into the perfect pot. You got the feeling he’d rather be out there, working alongside them. Still, he didn’t want the spotlight to be on him. Kment maintained, as do most of the servicemembers I talk to, that there was nothing about him that made him a hero. “The real heroes are these guys here – the ones doing this work. This story is really about them.”
On Wednesday over 150 Home Depot area employees were at the homes of four area Veterans, volunteering on their day off, as a part of their Foundation’s “Celebration of Service” campaign. At Kment’s home they would make his gardens immaculate, widen doorways so that he could get through them with a walker or wheelchair, add pavers to the gravel driveway, make his bathroom accessible, and construct a wheelchair ramp that would give him access to the main floor of his house. “It’s more than I could ever have imagined,” Kment said with overwhelming gratitude.
Area ALS Executive Director Lance Christian explained how quickly the disease strikes and how timely the Home Depot Foundation’s offer to make the home more accessible really was. “we’re so glad that Home Depot contacted the ALS Association for Oregon and Southwest Washington. We have so many Veterans that are in need, and they’re often unable to get the services as quickly as they’re required.” According to the ALS website, the average patient lives only 2-5 years after diagnosis though some can live with the disease for much longer. For Clyde and Fuji, that makes every moment precious.
The couple lingered very near each other in the sunlight that afternoon, watching the sea of orange shirts transform their yard into its previous glory. “This is 99% about them, and only 1% about him,” Fuji said as she put a hand on her husband’s shoulder. He kept his gaze on the garden, not turning around in that moment, but quietly nodding in agreement.
I said my goodbyes and thanked the employees I met who would keep working long into the afternoon. I turned to look at the progress that had been made since my arrival, and like a flash from 1962 I saw a young infantryman and his beautiful Japanese bride, the house where they raised two girls, and a lifetime of service.
Through it all, Clyde and Fuji remain optimistic and thankful. “What they’re doing here today is phenomenal,” said Kment, “Words cannot describe what I’m seeing!”
For more information about the Home Depot’s Celebration of Service, click here.
For more information about the ALS Association, click here.
To leave your comments of support for Clyde and Fuji, comment here.