At 97, Vet Still Helping Vets

Sixty-plus years after James Flanders began his Army career, he's still making sure his fellow soldiers get what they need.

The big difference, now, he notes, is, "I don't have to sleep in a tent."

"Chief" Flanders, as he's known, recently turned 97 years old, celebrated his 48th wedding anniversary and turned in a medal-winning performance in the Golden Age Games for retired military.

But the retired chief warrant officer who traded the skyscrapers of Manhattan for tents on three continents isn't ready to stop working -- not quite yet.

"There's always something that somebody needs," Flanders said from his home in Heritage Place. "I don't get around as well as I did once, but there are guys a lot worse off than me.

"While I can help them, that's what I'm going to do."

Flanders volunteers on a regular basis at Fayetteville's Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where he's logged more than 14,000 hours of volunteer service. His job there, as it was for 30 years in the military: "I'm the guy who helps get things done."

"Someone needs to do this," he said. "Somebody has got to take the steps so these men can live a good life. I can do it; I've been doing it. When you're a soldier, you do your job. Age doesn't matter."

It's been that way since Flanders, then a hep big-city guy, was drafted from his home in Manhattan and trained in World War II France.

"We slept in tents, which was a big change for a city boy like me," Flanders said with a grin. "I'd never been out of the city, and there we were sleeping on the ground in Le Havre."

Flanders, a private, worked at the massive Allied replacement depot and moved inland during the closing days of the war.

"They must have liked the job I did," he said. "I got promoted."

Promotions continued, as did transfers. He became a personnel officer at Fort Dix, N.J., then served in Korea -- sleeping again on the ground. After returning to the U.S., he received orders to Fort Campbell, Ky., where he received an unusual interview.

"A general there had asked to see me," Flanders said. "To this day, I don't know why. But he asked me if I was planning to go Airborne.

"You know, at this point I was 40 years old. I hadn't thought for a moment about jumping. But when you're a soldier and a general asks if you want to do something, you don't say anything but, 'Yes, sir!'

"So at age 40, I was going through Airborne training. And I did it, too."

Flanders finished with more than 100 jumps. He also ended up relocating to Fort Bragg, via Panama and pre-war Vietnam.

"I moved around a lot," he said. "And I saw a lot of places. I was in places in Korea where snow hid the ground and in jungles where the only air conditioning was if you left your tent flap open."

In some cases, he recalled, he was the first black officer some soldiers had worked with.

"That didn't change the job, but it did change how things were done sometimes," he said. "In those early days, I was aware of it. Doing the job right meant a lot.

"Honestly, I didn't really want to leave, but I was 55 and had 30 years, and I guess they were tired of looking at me."

After retiring, Flanders said he planned to "relax and take some time off." He couldn't stand it. He began bowling with his VFW buddies, and eventually became accomplished enough to compete nationally.

But Flanders missed work. When an opportunity came in 1978 to work with the Cumberland County Action Program, organizing volunteers, he jumped at the chance.

"I just don't take sitting still very well," he said with a shrug.

From there, Flanders began working at the VA hospital, combining his ability to get things done with another gift -- his ability to listen, not just hear.

"I've done this all my life," he said. "When someone comes to me with a need or a problem, I listen. I can tell who's just grousing and who has a real need.

"And if it's a need, I'll do all I can to take care of it."

The years have provided one big improvement, he added.

"I have an office now. I don't have to work out of a tent."

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