By Kara Lopp
Once a Marine, always a Marine.
It’s a motto Ruthie Lee Priester follows today though her military service is long over.
The 64-year-old Matthews resident served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War as a small contingent of female members based at Paris Island, S.C. Priester was responsible for preparing the paperwork her comrades needed to deploy to the war zone.
Today, she’s a client at Mint Hill’s Blessed Assurance Adult Day Care where founder Nate Huggins – an 11-year Army veteran – said Ruthie Lee keeps him on his toes. Priester earned the American theater ribbon and a good conduct medal for her service.
“You know what? She still has that Marine attitude,” Huggins said, laughing. “She still thinks she’s a Marine.”
Priester recently gathered with five of her fellow veterans who are clients at Blessed Assurance, 13001 Idlewild Road, to swap stories about their military days in honor of Independence Day. The nonprofit was recently re-accredited by the federal Veteran’s Administration to provide adult day care services for area veterans. The agency’s 10 veterans, who hail from Matthews, Mint Hill and across Union County, pay a maximum of $15 a day for services that cost more than $100 a day, Huggins said.
“Being able to come here is just a small token of Uncle Sam’s appreciation,” he said. “It’s not a freebie – they’ve earned it.”
Among Blessed Assurance’s other veterans are:
• W.C. Barefoot, 92, of Matthews: World War II Air Force pilot earning the Pacific Theater Award, good conduct medal and air service medal
• Robert Thompson, 67, of Monroe: Air Force inventory management specialist from 1968 to 1972 serving in Germany and Spain; awarded Meritorious Service award from Chief of Chaplains; European service pin and good conduct medal
• Joseph Ransom, 88, of Matthews: Army paratrooper with 181st Airborne during World War II; awarded bronze service medal, sharp shooters medal, European African campaign ribbon and good conduct medal
• Cornelius Warren, 65, of Charlotte: Army solider during Vietnam War, earning the good conduct medal and European service award
• Ed Kolwicz, 90, of Mint Hill: Army radio mechanic during World War II, part of the 878 bombardment squadron earning the air offensive Japan star, western Pacific star, eastern campaign star, American theater ribbon, Asiatic Pacific theater ribbon, victory and good conduct medals
Each veteran has a different story to share, but their love for the country they served ties them together.
Barefoot was so eager to serve, he lied about his age so he could join the Army National Guard as a young teen.
When World War II came, he was drafted into the Air Force while he was a newlywed working at Goodyear. He became a pilot, serving in the Philippines and stationed in New Guinea. The war took him away from his bride for more than two years.
Barefoot’s most harrowing moments came on a return flight from a bombing mission. The plane he was piloting ran out of fuel, and he was forced to crash land in the ocean where he and a fellow pilot spent about 36 hours floating in a rescue raft.
They radioed their coordinates as they were going down so a rescue crew could find them, but never got confirmation they went through. He remembers seeing sharks in the water. He suffered three broken ribs.
“You don’t hit the water at 75 miles an hour and not break anything,” he said. “But I thought it was the end of me.”
Finally, a helicopter came to the rescue.
“I don’t want anyone to call me a hero. I’m just lucky to be alive,” Barefoot said. “We had a job to be done and I did what I had to do.”
Huggins said he’s thankful for veterans like the ones he’s able to serve through nonprofit Blessed Assurance.
“It’s a blessing to be with these true veterans, true soldiers,” Huggins said. “They kind of paved the way for us.”
For more information about Blessed Assurance, including how veterans can receive discounted care, call Nate Huggins at 704-576-4754 or 704-845-1359.