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For Chaffee, service a family tradition

POSTED: November 9, 2017 8:31 a.m.
Lawrence Dorsey/

Retired Sgt. Maj. Adna Chaffee with photos of his grandfather and great-grandfather, both highly regarded generals.

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VIDEO: See Sgt. Maj. Adna Chaffee IV as he speaks passionately about how Vietnam Veterans are being recognized today for their service.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This profile of an area veteran is the first in a series of articles titled "Those Who Served," that will be featured in the Bryan County News..

When one bears the name of two of the highest-ranking, most respected generals in U.S. Army history, that person most certainly has stories to tell around the dinner table.

Do an online search, and the name Adna Chaffee returns biographies of both the senior Chaffee, a lieutenant general, who served in the Civil, Indian and Spanish-American wars, and eventually chief of staff of the Army, and the junior Chaffee, a major general, known as the “Father of the U.S. Armored Forces” and a close adviser to Gen. George Patton.

But for Retired Sgt. Maj. Adna Romanza Chaffee IV, it’s not just the military accolades of his grandfather and great-grandfather, nor his own accomplishments as a decorated Vietnam War veteran that are worthy of praise. It’s life after military duty that is adding to the legacy of this fourth-generation Chaffee.

Led by his faith in God to help others — he is an ordained deacon in the Presbyterian Church — Chaffee’s mission today is to tend to the homeless and needy in the community, and as president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 789 in Hinesville, to “make sure Vietnam veterans are not forgotten.”

Chaffee, 78, spends countless hours, both locally and on the road, participating in events to honor and thank veterans for their service. He and his family returned this week from Veterans Day ceremonies at Fort Chaffee, a present-day Arkansas Air National Guard facility named in honor of his grandfather, Adna Chaffee Jr.

Sitting down with Chaffee at his modest Hinesville home, photographs and mementos representing family, faith and country adorn the walls and bookcases.

The U.S. flag displays proudly as the centerpiece of his front lawn.

As Chaffee recounted the life he has led and the work he is doing today, his eyes welled and voice trailed off when explaining the reaction he gets from those he encounters

And looking as fit and trim as he did in his military days, it doesn’t appear that Chaffee will be slowing down any time soon, which is good news for those he impacts.

A family of military excellence

Chaffee’s family military history is well-documented. According to Wikipedia and other sources:

• Adna Romanza Chaffee Sr. (1842-1914) enlisted in the Union cavalry in 1861. Chaffee was promoted to the rank of brigadier general at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, during which he gained distinction at the Battle of El Caney in the Santiago campaign and won the admiration of Theodore Roosevelt. He commanded the U.S. contingent of the relief expedition sent to China during the Boxer Rebellion. He was promoted to lieutenant general in 1904 and served as chief of staff of the U.S. Army from 1904–06.

• Adna Romanza Chaffee Jr. (1884-1941) was an infantry major and colonel in World War I. Following the war, he was commander of the 7th Calvary Brigade, the Army’s only armored force, and rose to the rank of major general. He developed and experimented with armored forces, becoming the leading American advocate of mechanized warfare. The M24 Chaffee light tank was later named after him. Fort Chaffee, located near Fort Smith, Arkansas, was named in his honor.

The youngest Chaffee’s great-grandfather lived well before his time, and he was too young to remember his grandfather, the junior. Still, he speaks proudly of both.

“My grandfather was a really brilliant man,” Chaffee IV said. “His mission after World War I was to see armor support for the infantry. They called him the father of the armored forces.”

He added, “What you saw this man (pointing to a picture of Gen. George Patton) was able to do in World War II, (is attributed to) what my grandfather had planned (with armored forces). It all came from this guy here (pointing to Chaffee Jr., who was pictured alongside Patton).

With such military greatness in his genes, many families assume that future generations will continue along the same path. So, was there ever a doubt that Chaffee IV would follow in their footsteps?

“Yes, there was a doubt,” Chaffee said, noting that even his father took a different path than the elder Chaffees.

“My father, the third, graduated from West Point. He was a single child of Gen. Chaffee, the junior. He really didn’t want to be Army, but grew up in an Army family. When he graduated from West Point, he made the old man mad – he went into the National Guard -- and got kicked out of the house. He got married, and then I came along as the first child,” Chaffee recalled.

Chaffee IV didn’t necessarily envision himself seeking a career in the military, but a string of events, in part dictated by family and economic concerns, set forth his future.

Taking a different path: The Army Reserves

It was the mid-1950s and Chaffee was a sophomore in high school. The Korean War was ending, but a new war, in Vietnam, was just beginning.

“My dad didn’t want me to get drafted, so he made me join the Reserves,” Chaffee remembers. “My mother was reluctant, but they allowed me to sign the papers.”

Opting to go into the Reserves at age 16, Chaffee said, resulted in some hard feelings expressed by some members of the family who felt he should have taken a different route – starting with the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“The family kind of disowned us back in the ‘50s when they found out I had joined the Reserves. They assumed I would have gone to West Point,” Chaffee said, but admitted, “I could have gone to West Point on my name, but I knew that being a C-average student … I would have a hard time.”

As a 20-year-old in 1959, Chaffee said he got a letter saying he needed to go to basic training. He stayed in the reserves for the next several years, got married, and in 1968 was designated for active duty in Vietnam.

His first days in Vietnam

“If you’ve never been in combat and never been in the war, and here you are,” said Chaffee, describing his initial thoughts upon arriving in Vietnam for the first of his three tours of duty. “I’m dressed in my khaki uniform. They told us when we got there that they would take us to a warehouse or hangar and change your clothes and get your jungle fatigues and you’ll fly to your location.”

But, as Chaffee explains, the arrival was during the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War, launched on Jan. 30, 1968 by forces of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese People’s Army against the forces of the South Vietnamese and U.S. armies and their allies.

“When we landed, we were told to haul ass and hide because (the area) was being attacked,” Chaffee said. “We had no weapons. You never forget that. You just try to find a place to crawl into a hole.”

Fortunately, for Chaffee and his unit, there was no loss in life during his arrival, and “finally they got us processed in.”

His mission was to transport supplies up the river to aid soldiers. “My job as an E6 was to make sure our soldiers were fed and to put food on the boats,” Chaffee said. He was one of only a few Army Reserve units that had been called up at the time for active duty, he added.

Deciding to stay in the military

While in Vietnam in the late 1960s, Chaffee could have returned home, since he was in the Reserves, but he says, times were different than they are today for reservists. By law, the employer of a reservist must hold their job and make it available upon their return. Back then, Chaffee says he got a letter from his employer, a lumber company in Florida, saying they had gone bankrupt and there was no job to come home to.

“I was offered to stay on in the military and get promoted. I had four kids and a wife -- why not stay?” he thought.

His first wife, however, disagreed, Chaffee said, and divorced him. “She really didn’t like the military life even though it was good to us.”

Three tours of duty in Vietnam later, and several promotions, Chaffee was awarded sergeant major, in the mid-1980s -- the highest rank possible for an enlisted soldier. He retired from the Army in 1989.

“Unfortunately my dad had already passed at that time. I know he would have been proud.”

Earlier in the 1970s, Chaffee met his second wife Gabby, who today he affectionately calls his “beautiful bride.” The two have been married for 40 years and have raised eight children – four from his previous marriage, two from her first marriage, and two while together.

He said, unlike his first wife who didn’t like the military life, Gabby “has a backpack and will make another move if we ever have to,” joking that such a move today, with so much stuff gathered between the two, would probably mean they would need much more than a backpack.

Chaffee’s mission to honor veterans

Listening to Sgt. Maj. Chaffee speak, one might detect the same precision and way of thinking that marked his military career is now being used to map out his strategies while retired. He refers to efforts to honor both veterans and civilians as “missions” he must accomplish, such as “mission number one,” and mission number two.”

In recent years, Chaffee and veteran organizations have been part of efforts in the Liberty County area to make sure not only current soldiers are thanked for their service but that Vietnam veterans in particular are able to feel the love.

“We did not win the war. We were not treated like they were in World War I, or World War II, or even the Korean War,” Chaffee said. “We were not welcomed home. And now what we know (of) what the veterans are going through with PTSD and other problems like Agent Orange,” he said, as his voice trailed off.

Aside from Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies, Chaffee has been a part of efforts to recognize Vietnam vets with special lapel pins and certificates signed by the governor and other dignitaries. Hundreds of Vietnam vets have been honored over the past couple of years.

He and others in Chapter 789 also take part in an annual POW-MIA ceremony in Hinesville. Chaffee reminds that 29 Vietnam POWs from Georgia are still officially missing. Seven are from the local area: one from Ludowici and six from Savannah.

“Again, my mission is to make sure the Vietnam veterans are not forgotten,” Chaffee said, “and I’ll do anything I can through our chapter, whatever it is, to make sure that happens.”

Chaffee’s involvement is not limited to the local area. As referenced above, Chaffee, his wife and several members of their family drove to Fort Chaffee for a Nov. 4 Veterans Day parade. Chaffee has visited the site before and has been grand marshal of their parade.

But this year, it was a little different.

At a Vietnam Veterans of America state chapter meeting in Macon, attendees, including Chaffee, were introduced to a Vietnamese woman named Van Marosek.

Her mother worked for American soldiers in Saigon, and at age 9, Van, her mother and siblings were allowed to flee the country with the Americans to the United States. The family settled at Fort Chaffee, which, at the time, was used as a refugee camp.

Van, now in her 50s, has made it her mission to seek out Vietnam veterans to tell them thank you. She and her husband were guests of Fort Chaffee and joined the Chaffee family on a float at the annual Veterans Day Parade at Chaffee Crossing on Nov. 4.

Chaffee’s other mission: a mission from God

“Along with my beautiful bride, we serve and take care of the homeless,” Chaffee said. “We look at the veteran homeless, but also the homeless … period … in Hinesville.”

One way is ensuring that anyone hungry does not go without a hot meal.

He said the Vietnam Veterans Chapter 789 was approached by Bojangles restaurant manager Phillip Scott, who asked what he could do with leftover chicken and biscuits.

“The chapter got involved, and every Tuesday and Friday we go out and pick up the frozen biscuits and chicken and take it to the Manna house,” Chaffee said. “And we also have a church we take it to, to feed those people in need who can’t afford a meal.”

For Chaffee, helping others is simply the right thing to do.

“I follow the steps of our Lord, Jesus Christ,” Chaffee smiled. “And if you notice how He walked and where He went, He always helped those in need.”

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