Looking back, Tom McKinney can see where it was a little suspicious that he was told to wear his dress blues to this year’s Veterans Dinner.
McKinney, both a volunteer with Forever Young Senior Veterans in Alabama and an active member of Madison’s American Legion Post 229, dutifully donned his Marine uniform to attend the dinner with wife Sandra. Even after arriving and seeing the wide variety of attire, he did not suspect that his friends and fellow veterans had an ulterior motive.
Then his name was announced as the 2019 Veteran of the Year.
“I practically fell out of my chair when I heard my name,” McKinney said with a laugh. “I did not know beforehand. Everybody in Forever Young Senior Veterans and everybody in the American Legion, lots of people knew and were emailing back in forth – and I was oblivious! Nobody spilled the beans and that is kind of remarkable in and of itself.”
While McKinney had no idea that his volunteerism would be recognized, those around him had long taken note.
“Tom always steps forward to help his fellow veterans,” Post 229 Commander Larry Vannoy said. “There couldn’t be a better fit to lead our Americanism Committee. His enthusiasm and pride in being a patriot veteran is contagious when engaging the youth in our sponsored programs – be it running the county oratorical contest, making presentations to our sponsored JROTC programs or making awards to firefighter and police officer of the year.
“It was an honor working with the Forever Young Senior Veterans organization to nominate Tom for this award. A humble man who doesn’t seek accolades, what is important to him is serving his fellow veterans and their families.”
McKinney exhibits that modesty when speaking about his award. To him, he was simply helping his friends and doing what he loved. Whether it is serving on Post 229’s Honor Guard or building a shadowbox to hold a veteran’s medals, each effort and every cause is equally important.
“Tom McKinney never says no when one of his fellow veterans or our organization needs him. His whole life is about service to others,” Forever Young Senior Veterans in Alabama’s Chris Batte said.
That service began in the Marine Corps. During his years in uniform, McKinney completed two Vietnam tours in 1965 and 1966. For a long time McKinney did not speak of his time in Vietnam, the friends that he left there or the reception he received when he returned – or lack thereof.
“I came home to protests on every corner,” McKinney said. “Just recently in the past five, six, seven years or longer, the American people have started to realize, ‘these guys didn’t light that fire.’ … I didn’t talk about it for fifty years. My involvement in the veteran organizations I belong to – now we talk about it. Now I feel like I was welcomed home for the first time.
“The (Vietnam Veterans Memorial) Wall is phenomenally emotional for me. … Every name up there was a human just like me and you. And I know seven from my unit on that wall. I got inscriptions of their names when we did a trip to Washington with Forever Young Senior Veterans. And that was quite a treasure.”
After leaving the Marines, McKinney and his family settled in Madison where he and Sandra started their own company building computer systems for public safety organizations and fire departments. One could say that every stage of McKinney’s life has had a component of service – to his country, his community, its first responders and fellow veterans.
“I find that the veterans I meet, it doesn’t matter what conflict you were in, doesn’t matter what your job was – you could be a cook – it took a lot of different people to do a lot of different things. A certain allegiance and camaraderie exists and builds a bond that is just there.”
McKinney has a close relationship with World War II veteran Sherwin Callander, who he accompanies to veterans events. Callander was in on the Veteran of the Year secret.
“I am particularly fond of World War II veterans, I think for a couple of reasons,” McKinney said. “They are my father’s age – my father was in the military and has been gone for quite some time. And also, from a historical standpoint I really feel like that particular war had a great impact on us as a country, otherwise we might be speaking another language.”
As for the war that his generation fought, McKinney hopes to visit Vietnam again and see the change and progress that has occurred in the half a century since his time in country. As for Veteran of the Year, he remains convinced that he isn’t worthier than his fellow volunteers – but the recognition is definitely appreciated.
“Pretty big honor. I guess I’ll just have to keep doing it,” McKinney said with a smile.