Each year around this time, our nation reflects on the heroism and sacrifices of our veterans. We honor all who served and recognize the many men and women who were injured, sick or injured in the service of this country. Neighbors go out of their way to thank those who wore the uniform. Families remember the brave actions of relatives, passing their stories down from generation to generation.
Less told are the stories of those veterans who never stopped serving, who returned home and dedicated themselves to their communities despite the consequences of service or the challenges of transitioning back to civilian life. Air Force veteran Richard “Rich” Tolfa is one of those veterans.
Tolfa served as aircraft loadmaster with the 4th Air Commando Squadron in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967. He flew more than 150 missions.
During his deployment, Tolfa logged more than 900 air combat hours and received about a dozen medals, including the Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Bronze Star, Air Force Commendation Medal, Vietnam Air Service Medal and three Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Just a year after returning from his service in Vietnam, Tolfa was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. One of the unknown dangers at the time was the effects of exposure to Agent Orange. After having his thyroid removed, Tolfa returned to active duty until he retired as a sergeant major in 1982.
Coping with the physical and mental wounds of the war after retiring, Tolfa attempted to apply for service-connected disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). But, as is often the case with our nation’s veterans, he lacked adequate representation to obtain a proper disability rating.
Already active in DAV (Disabled American Veterans), a nonprofit charity that provides lifelong support to veterans of all generations and their families, another member referred Tolfa to a benefits advocate who could help. With the advocate’s knowledge and experience, Tolfa was guided through the process and successfully received his 100% VA disability rating.
Inspired by his own success working with DAV, Tolfa became more involved in his local chapter. He wanted to help other veterans in his community.
In 1995, Tolfa’s health continued to deteriorate from exposure to Agent Orange, forcing him to retire from his civilian career and eventually undergo open-heart surgery. Once she was healthy enough, Tolfa again wanted to give back to veterans and began volunteering as a driver through the DAV transportation network.
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“This was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had,” said Tolfa. “I met amazing people and helped veterans who might not otherwise be able to get to their medical appointments by being a volunteer driver.”
His time as a volunteer driver logged thousands of hours and more than 70,000 miles on Florida roads. In 2017, his health did not allow him to remain as a DAV driver. However, despite his challenges, he found other ways to stay involved in the program by serving as a local coordinator advocating for the needs of veteran patients.
“DAV is rooted in service, and there is no better example of our volunteers than Rich Tolfa,” said John Kleindeinst, DAV National Director of Volunteer Services. “There are countless ways to get involved in your community and help make a difference in the lives of our nation’s disabled veterans.”
Tolfa may not be as active as he used to be, but he hopes others will volunteer. Otherwise, our nation’s culture of caring for veterans is in jeopardy.
With more than 1 million members in 1,200 chapters in every state, DAV offers many ways to serve. You can volunteer to drive veterans to and from medical appointments through the DAV transportation network. Or you can volunteer at your local VA medical center, and those under 21 who log their hours with DAV are eligible for scholarships. Serving can also be as simple as helping a local veteran garden or shop. A volunteerparaveterans.orgDAV connects volunteers with veterans in need.
So this Veterans Day, thank those who served and those who continue to serve, and consider honoring them with action.
Laymond Rose of Clermont is a disabled Marine Corps veteran and commander of DAV Orlando Chapter 16, as well as Deputy Commander of DAV Florida Jr.