More than 20 years after his return from service in Vietnam, local veteran Jessie Jones discovered the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the camaraderie embraced by those who have served in the military.
Now, having served the VFW on several levels, Jones recognizes the path blazed by World War II veterans and the challenges they face in recruiting a younger generations of veterans.
"When I first joined the VFW (in 1989)," Jones said, "the organization was essentially controlled by World War II veterans. In later years, us Vietnam vets took over and now we are the older guys," he quipped.
His journey to the organization began in 1964, following his graduation from high school. Raised in Portageville, Jones said opportunities were somewhat limited in the rural community.
"You didn't have the grant and loan programs that you do now," he said. "Unless you wanted to pick cotton or drive a tractor, you had to look outside the community."
Impressed by the military service stories of friends and associates, Jones made the decision to enlist in the Marines.
Afterboot camp in San Diego, Jones remained on post as part of the aviation guarantee program and became qualified in anti-air warfare aviation electronics operations.
Following a brief assignment at Cherry Point, N.C., Jones was sent to Vietnam in March 1966. He recalls stepping off of the plane in DaNang where he was hit in the face by a 130-degree wind, then whispered to himself, "I volunteered for this?"
Over the next 13 months, the young Marine was assigned to Air Support Squadrons - a position in which he operated radio units and helped coordinate communications between the ground troops and aircraft engaged in medical evacuations or ground strikes.
"It was a lot like listening to the war through a headset," Jones said.
Returning stateside in early 1967, the combat veteran wished to remain in the Marine Corps, but the call of marriage superseded this career.
"I was engaged to get married and the Corps really wasn't a place for a wife," he said. "They didn't have any duty stations (at that time) outside the country where your wife could accompany you."
Finishing out his enlistment, Jones was discharged in May 1968 and spent the next 10 years working for Union Electric in St. Louis. He eventually transferred to the Callaway Nuclear Plant in 1979, working there until he retired in 2006.
However, following his departure from service, Jones - like so many before him - neatly tucked away his military memories and moved forward with civilian life. It wasn't until an encounter in 1989 that he would acquire an interest in the VFW.
"We were living in Fulton and my son was getting married," Jones said. "I found out the VFW hall was cheaper to rent if I had a friend (who was a member) rent it."
Jones began asking questions about the VFW, its members, and the organizational mission, and soon decided to join.
"They really weren't actively recruiting at that time unless you were a World War II or Korean veteran," he said. "I began going to the meetings and became actively involved in the organization."
Jones went on to serve as the post's commander, the district commander and eventually state commander. In 2007, he became the state adjutant and now serves as both the state adjutant and quartermaster at the department headquarters in Jefferson City.
Currently campaigning for national office with the organization, Jones is aware of the changes that have occurred in the demographics of the VFW and the challenges they face in recruiting newly minted veterans.
"We have reached a point where Vietnam veterans have really taken over the organization from our World War II predecessors, but we must transform as an organization if we are to survive," Jones said.
And, according to Jones, that transformation will involve more than just the veteran alone.
"This is really the first time in our history that we have kids that have grown up in a world during a time when there has always been a major war...and now these kids are serving us in the military," Jones said.
"Oftentimes, the entire family of the veteran has been involved in the war in some capacity, which is why I believe our goal should be to make this a truly family-friendly organization serving the needs of the entire military community.
Jeremy Amick is the public affairs officer for the Silver Star Families of America.