by Sue Wolinsky, Family Member, Army IL National Guard
“Setting Things Right for Veterans”
Chuck Zobac (US Army, Sgt. E-5) is true product of the US military. The Santa Fe County resident was a military brat (his dad retired as a Chief Master Sergeant, E-9, from the USAF).
Chuck served three years in the US Army (1965-1968), Military Intelligence in Washington, D.C., and Special Forces in Vietnam. Since he got out, he has been helping “set things right for veterans”, as he says it. He’s been passionate for decades about helping veterans in any way he can. He is still helping.
What does he need to “set right?”, I wondered.
- He helped found two chapters of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA): Chapter 464 in San Mateo, CA, which sponsored him in the 1990 Run for the (Vietnam Veterans) Wall; and Chapter 996 in northern NM, after moving to here in 1999.
- In 2013, he helped New Mexico to be the first state to collect all 398 photos of NM soldiers lost in Vietnam. (Click here for more information: New Mexico first state to get photos of all lost in Vietnam | Local News | santafenewmexican.com).
- He helped found the “Tamale Patrol” in Santa Fe, which has delivered beverages and more than 1,500 tamales to Fisher House (it is similar to Ronald McDonald House) on the campus of the VA Hospital in Albuquerque.
- He took to the airwaves to defend the honor of returning veterans after a San Francisco TV station ran an excoriating story about homeless vets destroying tourism. He knew he needed to stoke the fires on behalf of the large military presence in the Bay area. This experience led him to start sharing his story with students in California and Santa Fe.
- Along with sharing his story with students, he shared it with many whom he has steered to get help for their PTSD and to get their VA benefits. “I found that sharing my story with other vets helped me too,” he said.
- He hosted a successful one-hour radio show (Calling All Vets) on Santa Fe’s KTRC, interviewing veterans for four years. One show resulted in Chuck providing “fluffy socks” to the NM National Guard unit deployed in Bosnia.
- He is serving and has served on the boards of Honor Flight of Northern NM (listen to a recent KKOB radio interview with Chuck and Shirley Johnson about Honor Flight: https://omny.fm/shows/tj-trout/shirley-johnson-chuck-zobac); the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the National Veterans and Wellness Healing Center, both near Angel Fire, NM. He was recently asked to serve on the NM Veterans Memorial board, in Albuquerque.
There is more to Chuck’s story.
After he got out of the Army and had established himself as a successful businessman in California, he got involved in the early Runs for the (Vietnam Veterans Memorial) Wall in the early 1990’s. The wall, a project of love and determination by Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam vet, was unveiled in 1982. (Click here for a moving account of Jan Scruggs’ determination to build the wall, as well as a history of the three-year project: History of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial – Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (vvmf.org).) Chuck worked with Scruggs on Vietnam Memorial Foundation issues.
The country was beginning to look kindlier at Vietnam vets, many who were struggling with PTSD, multiple disability issues and reintegration challenges. Concern about prisoners of war (POW) and those missing in action (MIA) was also rising. Veterans were looking for ways to honor them. “In 1990, when I did the second Run for the Wall in DC, I thought everybody came home (from Vietnam), but that wasn’t true,” he said.
He knew he had to ‘set things right’ and draw the nation’s attention to these forgotten POWs and MIAs.
The first Run for the Wall, organized by Bill Evans, was in 1989. Their motto is, “We ride for those who can’t”. Approximately 115 bikes left from San Diego, CA, but only 15 went all the way. (Click here for a history of Run for the Wall: https://rftw.us/mission-and-history/.) A few years later, the group, Rolling Thunder, started their first Run to the Wall from Wisconsin to Washington DC in 1992. It has since grown to a national pilgrimage. (Click here for more information on Run to the Wall: RUN TO THE WALL | A Ride of Protest and Demonstration.)
Chuck recalls his first “run” in 1990. Wearing his three-piece suit, he had helped the organizers get corporate support to make the run happen. What he didn’t expect is that they would want him to ride with them. And that he did. “The second run had only 35 guys,” he said. “In 1990, we got 1,200 of us! Now there are several routes to Run for the Wall.” Further explaining, he said, “One year we did Rolling Thunder same year we did Run for the Wall. The next day we had all the Rolling Thunder bikes assembled in Pentagon parking lot. There were 12,000 of us! It took me 45 minutes just to get to the Lincoln Memorial and park my bike.”
It was a Run for the Wall that brought Chuck to New Mexico. “Heck, I did not even know how to spell ‘Albuquerque’. I did not want to live in NM. But I met Doc Westphall, a WWII Navy veteran. He built the Vietnam Veterans Memorial near Angel Fire to honor his son and 16 other Marines who were killed in Vietnam on May 22, 1968. But it’s grown into much more than that.”
“Why was I so moved? I was impressed by the nondenominational chapel and the recognition of people who served. That was a big thing for me. And it was the genesis for the wall in DC! Jan Scruggs, who created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC, talked to Doc Westphall, as he was planning for the (national) wall.”
A shared vision. Overcoming financial and logistical obstacles. Two Vietnam Veterans Memorials. Getting ‘er done.
“I was really affected by his vision and dedication and ability to create that. That affected me to move here 10 years later. Doc Westphall asked me to be on his board, so when I eventually moved, I became a member of the David Westphall Veterans Foundation,” he said.
A dad trying to ‘set things right’ for his deceased son.
|The Vietnam Veterans Memorial near Angel Fire will host the annual Run for the Wall on May 19 this year, as part of their Memorial Day events. Meet the riders; this is one of the most important stops on their “Run”. (Click here for more details and to learn the history of the memorial: https://www.vietnamveteransmemorial.org/).
Vision. Dedication. A ‘get ‘er done’ attitude. I am beginning to see a pattern here, a pattern that informs Chuck’s passion to help veterans. But when did that motivation germinate? To learn that we need to back to his roots.
HIS EARLY YEARS: This military brat saw true grit when he was growing up. “Dad did two tours at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, AL. We lived there when Rosa Parks took her stand for integration in the South and said, ‘I’m not moving.’” He also saw his dad get things done, make things happen, day after day. He may not have known it at the time, but he was learning the valuable lesson of getting things done, no matter what the obstacles may be. “Dad was an NCO and I saw how he got things done,” he said.
This proved to be useful to Chuck when he served. He enlisted for three years so he could get Military Intelligence as his MOS. It was helpful when he was in plain clothes in Military Intelligence. It was helpful when he was in Special Forces in Vietnam. “I was very proud of my service in Special Forces. It was different than what most vets did in Vietnam. I did a lot in the field; I had to be creative. My proudest decoration is my Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB). I got it quickly. I was on 12 different teams, traveling throughout II-Corps and III-Corps. He is a life member of Chapter LVI, the NM Special Forces Association.
He was getting ‘er done in both places.
“I came back home in 1968. I was done with the service. I was highly recruited by the CIA and I traveled for about six months. I got out the same day I got back. There is little decompression. I extended my tour a month so I could get out the same day I came home,” he said. He moved to California, where he went to junior college. There he began to build his post-military life.
He raised three daughters and built a successful career as a real estate broker and a mortgage broker in California. But the PTSD that resulted from his Vietnam tour had raised its ugly head. It tore apart his first marriage and sent him down a few unsuccessful treatment paths at the VA. After a battle with the VA-prescribed drugs and a period of self-medication, he finally found his way when he got involved with the VVA Drop-in Center in San Mateo, CA. His counseling at the VA led him there. “The VVA counselors had a cup of coffee with you. They knew how to listen,” he said.
Then, through his work with the San Mateo VVA, he got involved in the Menlo Park VA PTSD program. It was the flagship VA program then, in the late 1980s-1990s. He went to the VA at Ft. Miley in San Francisco. It was there that he began talking about his experiences in Vietnam – to other veterans, to students, to the world. He’s been in therapy since then, in the late 1980’s.
This man amazes me. Healing through work. Healing through sharing. He was setting an example for his fellow troubled vets while he was trying to heal himself. And he still is.
Chuck encourages veterans to share their stories. He remembers their stories. And he tells his own. He is an avid talker. “You know,” he said, “it (life) boils down to who you talk to and the kind of rapport you can establish. That happens all the time in life. It is how you get things done. It is how you help a struggling vet.”
Almost everyone he talks with and works with, in his quest to make life better for his fellow veterans, becomes his friend.