Joe Raburn pulled a red Pall Mall cigarette from the box, lit it and put the lighter back on the table beside his coffee, while sitting inside what was a steadily filling up American Legion Post 47 on this Wednesday afternoon.
In between sharing the stories of his past and offering takes on the changes he has seen over the years, he greeted the familiar faces, standing up to shake their hands or give them a hug. It is this place and its people who welcomed him five years ago as a brother and piece of the military fabric of this community and nation.
Raburn recalled the time he first walked into the post. Not one person knew his name, he said. But when he returned, "it was like a family reunion," he explained.
After leaving the U.S. Army in 2010, following his 35-year service, 25 of which as a member of the Special Forces, Raburn entered back into civilian life. But he was not the same person as that young man who joined the military to fulfill his lifelong dream to serve a higher purpose for his nation, he said.
"You change and you don't see it," said Raburn of combat veterans like him. "You're not aware of it and you don't know it."
Raburn — who served two tours each in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan — said that to acclimate after these combat experiences its natural for veterans to be attracted to those most like them, the ones who can understand how that change below the surface affects them. The Legion offered that for him, just like it does for veterans across the nation, fulfilling the void of that higher purpose once he left the Army, he said.
"It gives you an opportunity to serve still," said Raburn, rattling off all of the organizations who benefit from the Legion's efforts, such as the Coulter-Hampton Foundation, Gordon County Special Olympics, all three local high schools, JROTC, the Red Cross and the Legacy Fund.
Continuing to serve through the Legion offers a different feeling for Raburn and his fellow members, said the former post commander and current executive board member. When one contributes to the protection of America, this higher purpose and the impact one has in serving it is not always easily realizable or seen. But with the Legion's work, the local lives affected by its actions are clear and visible, he explained, from the kids receiving a Christmas gift through the toy drive or the local high school students accepting scholarships to further their education.
"If its legally and morally possible, then we'll do it," Raburn said of helping out veterans, active military members and their families among others, laughing that there's a scale of 1 to 10 used to determine whether to do it or not — One means its easy to do, while 10 may lead to needing a lawyer.
Raburn graduated from Dalton High School in 1972, joining the Army infantry three years later. He said that he would have been in the last draft in the U.S., but with some advice from veterans — who told him that he if joined he wouldn't have to serve the additional year required of those who were drafted — he made his own decision about his future. In his second year, he recalled all the news stations reporting on the last military member drafted leaving service, and he found himself a member of what was for the first time an all volunteer military.
From his earliest childhood memories, Raburn said he knew he would be in the military, he just didn't know which branch. And after 10 years in the infantry, he was selected to Army Special Forces, something he knew nothing about, he said. He had friends who were part of the force but even then they did not talk about what they did.
Raburn remembers when he got the news of his selection. He was standing in formation one morning at Fort Bragg in North Carolina when his first sergeant called him out, directing him to go to his office. It was there where the commander and first sergeant informed him, offering him praise.
"I went anywhere I was told to go," he said, doing a little bit of everything. "The average person doesn't understand that soldier down range."
Coming out of the anti-war sentiment of the Vietnam War, Raburn can still recall how it lingered in his country even after the war ended.
"No GIs and no dogs," he remembers seeing outside one business. "If you were in the military, they were looking down on you."
The sentiment worried him, especially for how it permeated into the lives of family members who had loved ones in the armed forces.
"The general public really has short memories," said Raburn, reflecting on the ebbs and flows of public opinion about the military, as patriotism surges at moments to only be tapered down shortly thereafter. "You only hear about it when things are bad."
Just like car insurance, the military is only thought about when it is needed, fading off into the depths of the public consciousness when it is not, though it is always there, Raburn said.
Raburn is frequently asked why he stayed in the Army so long. "It's because I liked what I was doing. I felt that I was serving a purpose greater than myself," he said. "If not me, who? Are you gonna send you're child to replace me?"
In 1987, Raburn switched into a leadership and training role for the Special Forces, teaching the unconventional warfare he says is needed more in the ongoing War on Terror, particularly in Afghanistan.
"I went squirrel hunting," he said of what he was asked to do, leaving out of his base with his gun, a few supplies and water to track down the enemy.
But due to limitations from Status of Forces Agreements — "that limits the whole scope of the military action," Raburn said — the methods needed in Afghanistan are not being utilized, as a conventional army fights and unconventional enemy.
"It's like a dog on a chain," he said. "You always do what you've always done and you'll always get what you've always got."
A changing military
"I'm trying real hard to not sound politically incorrect, and it doesn't come naturally," Raburn said with a smile.
Air Force veteran John Fluegge joined Raburn at the table to offer his opinion on political correctness in the military, something he saw more and more of over his 36 years. And as he sat down, Raburn gave Fluegge one of those common verbal jabs — something about running over his wife with a tractor — heard flung around the post, the playful ribbing from veteran to veteran.
"I don't think the military and political correctness go together," Fluegge said, nursing a Coors Light. "It doesn't work."
Both Raburn and Fluegge noted the increase in young people joining the military to develop a particular skill that can be used upon reentering civilian life. This has always been around, Fluegge said, but it seems to be more prevalent with advancements in technology integrating into the military.
"They took my secretary and gave me a computer," Fluegge, who moved to this area after being transferred to Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta in his final years, recalled of his own experience.
Today's young people go into the military with a better idea of how to use it to benefit their lives, no longer having their awareness overtaken by the "indoctrination by the school system," Raburn said. He has even personally taken young people under his wing to share his knowledge and experiences to help them, as well as driving them to the Army recruiting office in Rome.
What hasn't changed about the military, no matter which branch, is the camaraderie shared between its members — the people and the moments that will never be forgotten.
However, Raburn said service members do not keep in touch with one another after leaving, for the most part. There may be a Christmas card sent out or a phone call made, but rarely does interaction take place face to face, especially for combat veterans, he continued.
When those who shared in the chaos of combat meet again and look into each other's eyes, those memories which have been suppressed for years rush back into the mind, Raburn said.
"You're tickled to see them, but it all comes back," he said. "Those horrors come back."
But at the American Legion, Raburn is amongst those who understand but do not trigger those lingering memories, he said. This bond is formed and emboldened by each new member, for they are a brother and sister in arms, and he knows them all by name.
The two Republicans in the only two competitive races locally both pulled away with huge victories in Tuesday's general election.
Dana Stewart was elected to a new four-year term on the Gordon County Board of Education, taking more than 80 percent of the vote to overcome the challenge of Democrat Allen Dutch. Chad Steward was elected to another four-year term on the Gordon County Board of Commissioners, carrying 82.11 percent of the vote to beat out Democratic challenger Arthene Bressler.
Stewart currently holds the Post 3 seat, after filling an opening on the board in 2016.
Stewart won the election by 8,647 votes. A total of 82.93 percent of voters cast their ballots in favor of Stewart, while Dutch received 17.04 percent of votes. There were 10,883 who voted for Stewart and 2,236 who voted for Dutch.
"I feel really good with the results," Stewart said Tuesday, adding that she was impressed by the phenomenal voter turn out this year.
Gordon County's overwhelmingly Republican votes reflected the conservative values and priorities of local people, she said.
Stewart was appreciative of the county electing her and the already existing programs dedicated to putting children first. She credits the teachers, parents, family, friends and the board of education for the success of her campaign.
"Thank you Gordon County for your vote of confidence," Stewart said following the official Gordon County election results. "I pledge to always put children first."
Dutch was not pleased with his defeat, but was thankful for the people who did vote for him.
"Two thousand votes don't even begin to make a dent," Dutch said, "but it was nice to meet a lot of new people during the process."
He said during his time campaigning he was able to offer a bit of hope to citizens with liberal ideals who didn't know they had someone to represent them. Some people he met didn't even know a Democratic Party existed, he said.
"A lot of political seats in Gordon County go unchallenged," Dutch said, but he said he was still very thankful for everyone who supported him. "And congratulations to Dana Stewart."
The board's website explains how board members are elected to four-year terms on a staggered two-year election cycle. In 2018, there were three seats up for election: posts 3, 5 and 7. Stewart was the only one running against an opponent.
Kacee Smith did not have a challenger in the Post 5 race after defeating longtime board member Nan Barnette in the Republican primary election in May. He will join the board at the start of next year.
Former Calhoun City Schools board member Eddie Hall (R) also went unopposed for the Post 7 seat in the general election after beating out current board member Larry Massey in the Republican primary.
Charlie Walraven was also unopposed for the Post 1 seat in the general election, as was the case in the Republican primary as well. He will serve another four-year term.
Steward: 'Thank you' Gordon County
Steward received 14,199 votes to Bressler's 3,038. The District 2 seat was the only County Commission seat where the incumbent faced a challenger in the General Election. County Commission Chair Becky Hood, a Republican, was unopposed for the District 4 seat, as was the case in the Republican primary in May.
"Thank you citizens of Gordon County for giving me the opportunity to serve you for the past 16 years on the county school board and County Commission," Steward said. "I want to give a special thanks my family and friends for all of their support."
Steward took to looking ahead for his next four years.
"I am ready for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead the next four years," he said. "Thank you again Gordon County."
Bressler, a retired psychologist who moved to Calhoun from Norcross six years ago, was not surprised by the results of the election, she said. However, she is taking her experience and looking toward the future.
"I think it was a really good experience," she said. "I'm gonna be around. I'm still going to be an advocate for change."
She was driven to run for the County Commission due to "too many people sitting in the same seat for too long," she said.
"As far as the win or lose thing, the information did get out to people," Bressler said. "I think it was time to get the word out and say we could do better. I think letting people know that change is inevitable, sometimes we have to move forward with new people with a new vision."
Though Bressler said she never saw herself running for public office, she grew up in a family which encouraged involvement in politics and the questions surrounding it.
"Now I would say I should have done it a long time ago," she said. "The lesson I learned is democracy is still alive, we just have to watch how its applied."
She condemned the "tribal belief system" that has infiltrated our politics, speaking to the dangers of an ideology "that's never willing to change."
Bressler said the so-called "Blue Wave" of Democrats challenging Republicans is not going away.
"This is just the beginning, we will see more of these efforts going forward," she said.
"It's a family thing, " Calhoun resident Ben Early explains of his woodworking hobby. His mother and sisters picked up the practice years ago, and Early followed suit.
He began his woodworking pursuits in 1982 with a wooden turtle stool, the initial design for which he borrowed from his wife's uncle.
"A few years later I got interested in them," he says.
He made modifications over time and eventually came up with the "Charlie Snapper" stool that is his specialty today. Children particularly favor the Charlie stools, and many customers buy them for the little ones in their lives, but the turtle has also made appearances in offices and schools, according to Early.
The design that he perfected over the years has become his calling card. Other crafters have tried to copy it, but there are certain parts of the assembly process that he says no one has been able to duplicate. They make the little four-legged platforms more sturdy and durable in the long run.
"I've had some copycats around copying my stuff, but I don't do that," Early says. "Everything I make, it's come out of my head."
Working with kids
Early grew up "across the mountain from Shannon" on Bells Ferry Road. He was one of 10 children — six boys and four girls. All of his siblings are still living, except one. He worked at Coosa Middle School where he was head custodian for five years before retiring 13 years ago. That job allowed him to interact with children on a daily basis, and it was hard to leave the experience behind.
"I used to have to go down there about once a month after I left and get my fill of the kids ... I love them kids — always have," he says. "That's the reason I've done these (Charlie Snapper stools). If people can't afford them or something like that or are sick ... I'll ask them, 'Which one do you like?'"
More often than not, people in unfortunate circumstances walk away from Early's craft booth holding a turtle stool he gave them for free. He has a photo on his phone of a 3-year-old little boy who was undergoing chemotherapy at the time of this writing. The boy received a complementary Charlie Snapper.
"If I find out some kid is sick ... I'll always try to give them one," Early says. "That'll pep them up a little bit."
Before his career as custodian at Coosa Middle, Early spent 34 years in the textile industry at the company originally known as Integrated Products. The company began with some 30 employees, and the workforce eventually grew to 2,000, he says. Company facilities were scattered between Aragon and Villa Rica.
A balancing act
Early balanced work with his hobby for many years, and he kept a swift pace. There was a time when he was on the road traveling to craft shows from Alabama to Tennessee twice a month. The biggest show he participated in was the Apple Festival in Ellijay, which stretches over two weekends each fall. Now he's slowed down significantly, and he limits himself to three or four shows each year, towing a 16-foot trailer jammed with his wares to each one.
His creations include various types of furniture – hall trees, storage trunks, coffee tables — as well as novelty items like doll beds and miniature cradles. He's even come up with a dog bed design that has proved popular. Early works mostly with pine and hardwoods. Although he does use big box retailers, he has some local sources, too. Some of his friends help out on occasion.
"I've got three good friends that are carpenters ... I tell them, 'I'll bring my trailer and leave it. Put your junk (on it) and you're good stuff, too,'" he says.
His designs have ended up in some far-flung places.
"A lot of this stuff goes all over the country," he says. "I've got them in Pennsylvania, Washington, South Dakota."
Not ready to retire
His wife, Judy Early, used to make mattresses and pillows for the doll beds. The couple celebrated their 51st anniversary in July. They have two sons, Daniel Early, who lives in Washington, D.C., and Robert Early, who lives on property that backs up to their land. They see their two granddaughters, Robert Early's daughters, frequently. The youngest is 15 now — "another driver," Ben Early says a bit wistfully, recalling in his next breath how the two were "just babies" not long ago.
Although he has cut his craft show attendance significantly, Ben Early, who turns 78 years old at the end of this month (he was actually born on Thanksgiving), seems to have no intention of shutting down his saw and sander any time soon. The shop beside his home is filled with a host of half-finished pieces and completed ones waiting to be sold.
"My family is wanting me to retire, but I can't," he says. "I've got to go do something. I cannot sit around."
When local Larry Fleming was 18 years old, the year was 1969 and the United States was about to begin drafting soldiers to fight in the Vietnam War. Fleming was so terrified of being drafted that he enlisted himself and got into Army Aviation. He quickly signed with the First Aviation Brigade, soon to be transported to Vietnam.
The first step of every soldier, Fleming was immediately placed in a basic training program to prepare him for his first tour. Going through training, he said he learned what true respect for others and brotherhood really meant.
"You don't fight for yourself. You fight for the guys on your side," Fleming said. "If one of us messed up, we all messed up."
This training was one of the best things that happened to him, he said, if only because it taught him how to work on a team and the importance of camaraderie.
Over the next couple of years, Fleming spent time in and out of Vietnam, returning to his home country in 1970 when he was injured and volunteering to return to Vietnam in 1971 after his recovery. As a part of an aviation brigade, he spent most of his time on helicopters. His days would often begin at 5 a.m. and end late at night after a long day of trying to fend off the enemy.
"Being in aviation, we got to see 10 times as many things than what foot soldiers would see," he said.
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His two separate tours were spent trying to shoot at the enemy before they shot at him, he said. He was injured twice, and had many friends who died while serving in the war, including one of his friends from home who stepped on a bomb.
Fleming said being in Vietnam was unlike any other place he had ever been, and not in a good way. While there, he experienced a country littered with drugs, violence, prostitution and child trafficking. It was not a place he wanted to stay. Fortunately, he was able to return home earlier than expected.
Coming home: The worst part
Fleming was able to return to the United States early as a result of President Richard Nixon's "Vietnamization" policy, which significantly reduced the number of American troops in Vietnam. Yet, coming back to his home country was equally shocking, and he regards it as the worst part of his service. The amount of angry and hateful protesters made him question if he was actually back in the States.
When Fleming was flown back to the U.S. and was being taken to a hospital for injury treatment, he distinctly remembers being put on a bus with a group of other soldiers. From there, they were driven from the Army base onto public roads, where protestors were lined up and waiting with signs.
"There was one girl who was standing on the corner, and the bus slowed down to make a turn," Fleming said. "She yelled, 'Too bad they didn't kill you too.' They called us everything you can imagine."
For that reason, Fleming avoided talking about Vietnam for almost 15 years, when after some time had passed, he finally became comfortable talking to his family and friends about his service. He began to reach out to old crew members from his team and started attending yearly brigade reunions. But even with the time that has passed, he is still affected by his time in the Army.
"It's hard to say, but I'll say it, I never came home from Vietnam," Fleming said, now 69 and an active participant in the Calhoun American Legion. "Physically I'm here, but the rest of me isn't."
Helping other veterans
Now, nearly 50 years after his second tour ended, Fleming is trying to help other veterans in the area. He works with five to six veteran organizations in the Gordon County area, listening to veterans tell their story.
"I want to help the other guys get to where I am at least, or better," he said. "When they come to talk, you listen. You give them whatever they need."
Through his association with the American Legion, he has made a good friend who was in an artillery group in Vietnam. The two have bonded over their mutual experience in military service, and refer to each other as brothers.
Fleming has met countless others through these veteran organizations and serves as a mentor to younger veterans, regardless of military branch, age, or tour location. When reflecting on Veteran's Day, which will be celebrated on Monday, Fleming said it's more than just a three day weekend.
"It should be a day we all take time to reach out to those who served," Fleming said. "To me, it means a whole lot."
Fleming encourages people to move beyond the "lip talk" and get to the real heart of the holiday by listening to veterans, hearing their stories, and offering them support in any possible ways.
In Gordon County, Veterans Day will be celebrated by local schools, restaurants and businesses, who will be hosting sales, special discounts and/or events offered specifically to veterans to show gratitude and appreciation for their service.