By BRANDON JOHANSSON
DAILY PRESS WRITER
Charley Watkins is no stranger to giving his time to others.
Since retiring from the Army in 1989, Watkins has become a bit of a "professional volunteer."
The 62-year-old volunteers all around Craig. In the wintertime he can be found shoveling snow for the region's elderly. Watkins also serves as president of the Friends of the Library in Moffat County. His wife, Donna, is director of Moffat County libraries.
"I like to stay busy," the Vietnam veteran said.
But Watkins' real passion is helping his fellow veterans.
Watkins dedicates his time to working with veterans through the county's Veteran's Service Office and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4265 in Craig.
Watkins has stepped into his share of leadership roles with the VFW, but he started his tenure with the organization pretty unceremoniously.
In 1997, not long after the Colorado native moved to Craig, Watkins went into a local store to buy a snowblower for the Moffat County libraries. The clerk saw a military insignia on Watkins hat and asked him to join the "V."
From there, Watkins has gone on to serve as post commander, District 9 commander and chief of staff for the VFW Department of Colorado. Watkins has also worked with the VFW on the national level, serving on the POW/MIA committee and the National Security and Foreign Relations committee.
Watkins' 23-year military career saw him fly helicopters in Vietnam, where he was shot down five times. He was running an airfield in Beirut, Lebanon when terrorists blew up a Marine barracks next door.
Helping vets has its rewards, but it can be frustrating,
"Vets issues just aren't as important anymore," Watkins said.
With fewer and fewer veterans in Congress, Watkins said the nation's political focus isn't on helping veterans.
Getting veterans the health care they deserve from the Department of Veterans Affairs can be particularly challenging.
"Once you get in (to the VA system), 99.9 percent will brag on the quality of health care," Watkins said. "The hard part is getting into the system."
Watkins spends a great deal of time driving local veterans to the VA hospital in Grand Junction and helping veterans get enrolled in the VA.
When he lived in Tennessee, Watkins took on the VA to get health care for two of his neighbors.
One neighbor was a POW during World War II. As a POW, the VA owed the man 100 percent of his health care for the rest of his life, Watkins said. But for some reason, the VA hadn't given him the care he was promised.
The other neighbor had his feet frozen during the Battle of the Bulge but wasn't getting health care from the VA.
In both cases, Watkins took on the VA and got his neighbors the health care they were owed.
Part of the problem, Watkins said, is that the VA bases the care they give on how much a person makes when they leave the service, not on combat accolades or military success.
That means a person who held a military desk job could get better care than a military hero would.
Watkins doesn't want to strip any vets of their health care, including those who worked behind a desk, but he does want better care for the soldiers who put themselves in harm's way. "The system is very flawed," he said.
Watkins is particularly fond of a quote from President Calvin Coolidge that reads: "The nation which forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten."
Watkins said America is seeing the early stages of what Coolidge predicted.
The Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force will miss their recruitment quotas this year. Watkins said part of the reason for the dip in military in recruits is the way vets are treated.
"They're not stupid," Watkins said of young people who decide not to serve. "They have seen the government has welched on promises to the veterans."
One of the things Watkins said would really help Northwest Colorado's veterans is a veteran's clinic in the region.
"We're killing our vets by having them drive back and forth to the hospital," Watkins said.
Watkins has lobbied the VA and U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar for a Community Based Outreach Clinic, CBOC, in Northwest Colorado, but so far, there are no plans for a facility in the region.
Watkins plans to keep fighting until Northwest Colorado's vets have a facility of their own.
"We need a CBOC up here," Watkins said. "I'm not going to give up."