ODESSA, Texas (AP) — Troy Allan Chesnut found true happiness seven years ago on a dirt road leading into Sunyani, Brong-Ahafo Region, Ghana.
The Odessa American reports Chesnut and an English Rotarian, Milton Frary, were on their way to give wheelchairs to 150 disabled Ghanaians when they drove onto an astonishing and very poignant sight.
"We saw people crawling or scooting on their backs, going to the distribution point at 2 p.m.," he said. "Some had been going since 7 a.m. So we told the driver, 'Stop the car, let us out and pick up as many of these people as you can get. Keep coming back, get as many as you can and deliver them.'
"Milton, chairman of the Wheelchair Foundation UK, and I walked the last mile and a half."
The two had just been to Sierra Leone on a similar mission and since then Chesnut has partnered with the Las Vegas-based American Wheelchair Mission to donate 12,000 wheelchairs in Vietnam, Central Mexico, Jamaica, Israel, The Philippines, American Samoa, Chile, Uganda, South Africa, Ghana and eastern Sierra Leone at Koidu Town and Boroma Village, where he has also dug water wells and built two clinics, a church, a school and a sewing center with 11 old-fashioned treadle sewing machines.
Having served three years in Vietnam with the Marine Corps in the middle and late 1960s, Chesnut needed a big transformation to reach his current spiritual state. "The Marines' job is to teach one thing that you can do extremely well when you're sent out to defend this country," he said.
"That takes some changing in your physical and mental makeup and it can take years to get that out. It took me 30 or 35 years to get back over the hump to my true nature, which is caring about people and animals."
Already well known locally for his ownership of two camels, four llamas, two miniature donkeys and other animals in his 45-acre pasture northeast of town, Chesnut was recently honored as one of the Heritage of Odessa Foundation's Community Statesmen.
One of the most powerful emotions of his life came with his flight into Hanoi, North Vietnam, on July 8, 2013. "It was a strange feeling because we did everything we could do to destroy this entire country," he said.
"I was hopeful I'd be received cordially instead of their being ready to cut my throat. But nobody held a grudge. One hundred percent of the North Vietnamese people have been warm and friendly."
Noting he served with the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment, Chesnut described meeting a North Vietnamese veteran in the Quang Tri Province, where he had fought. "We're visiting through an interpreter and I'm wondering if I'm the one who made him need that wheelchair," he said.
Chesnut is a 74-year-old Midkiff native who graduated from Rankin High School in 1962 and studied at Texas Tech and the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology in Okmulgee before enlisting in the military.
After Vietnam, he worked in the sales and service department of the Ideco Division of Dresser Industries, which make drilling and well service rigs, and for the late accountant Howard Reed while attending Odessa College and earning a bachelor's degree in accounting at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. Chesnut became a certified financial planner after three years' study at the College for Financial Planning in Denver.
He started his tax preparation and financial planning company, Troy Chesnut & Associates, in 1974. He and his wife Karen have a daughter, four grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Their son Michael, a Big Spring city policeman, died in 2015. They are members of First Baptist Church.
The associate tax professionals-financial planners at Chesnut's company, which has 1,500 clients, are his wife, his daughter Lisa Crone and his nephew Richard Hargus.
Traveling with American Wheelchair Mission President Chris Lewis, son of the late entertainer Jerry Lewis, along with their relatives, donors, a videographer and a photographer, Chesnut averages 10 international trips a year and has given numerous chairs to American veterans' hospitals, although chairs are widely available in the U.S. from Medicare, churches and nonprofit corporations, of which there are over 1,100 in Ector and Midland counties. The group will return to Vietnam this spring.
The AWM has the yellow metal chairs — its trademark — manufactured for $100 each in Shanghai, China, and ships them in containers of 280 to the distribution points before flying in. With the Catholic organization Caritas International finding the recipients, shipping costs are $50 per chair. Each container comes with 100 pair of crutches, 100 canes and 100 walkers.
Chesnut's nonprofit group is called VRDUR or "verdure," meaning "fresh green growth," with the "e's" deleted to distinguish its name. "Even though the people are overcome with emotion, I'm the one who gets the most joy," he said.
"Some have been bedridden for years and suddenly they can go to town or the family can take them places. I can't tell you the number of times that emotion has overcome me. What does it mean? Everything because now I feel like I'm doing what I was put on earth to do.
"It's easy to go through life looking toward helping yourself and your family and that kind of thing, but starting to focus on helping other people was when I came into my own. The value of a person is in what you do for others. I'm now at peace with the world."
A particular concern is providing wheelchairs to victims of Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war, in which rebels sought control of the gold and diamond mines in the West African country's eastern region. "They went into the villages and tried to recruit all the young males," Chesnut said.
"If they wouldn't go, the rebels chopped off a leg, an arm or fingers or poked an eye out of the old ones to make them go. They have an amputee village and are poor beyond belief. We also give them clothes and flip-flop shoes."
The 2006 movie "Blood Diamond" was based on the Sierra Leone Civil War, which ended in 2002.
Chesnut's favorite hobby is scuba diving, which he first experienced off the coast of Okinawa during a military rest and recuperation trip in 1965. He has since become a master diver, testing the waters of the Caribbean Sea, Red Sea and Pacific Ocean off the coasts of Palau, Yap, South America, California and Baja California at Cabo San Lucas. "It's so peaceful," he said.
"You're cruising along weightless, looking at everything on the walls or reefs. It's a completely different world that most folks never see."
Asked if he has ever been in danger, he said, "There have been challenges, but you always carry a knife to cut through the seaweed or fishnet.
"Even 60 or 90 feet down, you relax and take off your fins, facemask, weights, oxygen tank and buoyancy control vest and figure out what to do to get yourself out of that predicament. You're trained for every possible thing that can happen."
Mike Merrill, sales manager at Sewell Ford Lincoln, said Chesnut "is a model for community involvement, philanthropy and integrity.
"Troy's calling is to minister not only to people's spirits but also to their material needs," Merrill said. "His way of living speaks for itself. He's a man others should aspire to be. I went to him to get my taxes done 31 years ago when I was 19 and he made a large impression. He was kind and made time for me."
Retired teacher-coach Jim Moore said Chesnut "is as good a man as they could ever choose for the Community Statesman Award.
"I'm an Air Force veteran and I liked the guy the first time I met him," Moore said. "He is a nice man and a good old boy. He's from a small town and still has a lot of those values."
Insurance agent Jeff Allbright said Chesnut "is one of the finest human beings I've ever met.
"Troy is a generous, kind person who thinks of others before himself," Allbright said. "He is always looking for opportunities to help people in need. He helped me considerably eight months ago with a water well project for an orphanage in Bungoma County, Kenya.
"I think he is following what his faith leads him to do. He is the salt of the earth."
Information from: Odessa American, http://www.oaoa.com