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At annual awards luncheon, VA volunteers say it’s a pleasure to serve

Most of the 40 or so volunteers who met at the Sousley Campus auditorium for an awards luncheon last week are veterans.
John McGary
Most of the 40 or so volunteers who met at the Sousley Campus auditorium for an awards luncheon last week are veterans.

It begins very much like a military awards ceremony – the National Anthem, followed by an invocation.

The scene in the VA’s Sousley campus auditorium is one familiar to most of the volunteers there, because they wore the uniform before returning on their own time, at their own expense, to help their brothers and sisters. Acting Lexington VA Director Phil Brown says volunteering there isn’t always easy.

“You see folks at their best, right? But also, you see them at their worst. And oftentimes, you're all one of the last faces that our veterans get to see. And being there for them, being there for their families and their time of need.”

After the 40 or so volunteers pick up a box lunch and drink, awards are presented. One goes to Donna Cornett, who spent 20 years in the Army as a meteorologist and MP.

“I've been a volunteer for about 12 years, I run our honor guard for the VFW Post 680 here in Lexington, and we bury our nation's dead.”

She says serving at a veteran’s funeral is a privilege.

“Especially when the younger generation come up to you and says, ‘Thank you for your service.’ It just touches your heart. Or a little girl tugs on you, ‘Thank you for my pa paws funeral.’ Just makes you swell pride.”

Another longtime volunteer at the luncheon is Jay Hoskins, a base civil engineer in the Air Force from 1965 to 1970. He lives in Versailles and comes to the Sousley campus every Wednesday.

“I'm the Walmart greeter. Sort of, only it's better. We try to make people feel comfortable as they walk in the door by, you know, saying, ‘Hello, good morning. We can help -- ask us.’

Hoskins was on active duty during the height of the Vietnam War and says he was fortunate.

“I went all over the friggin world. And I was lucky enough to not have anything bad happen to me. Neither mentally nor physically. So before I retired, I thought this would be a great place to start giving back.”

Brian Kinney says that’s what he thought, too. He was a gunners’ mate in the Navy from ’81 to ’96 and last year’s VA national male volunteer of the year. He makes the nearly two-hour round-trip from Cynthiana every Tuesday and Wednesday and says he’s met lots of interesting veterans.

“And the thing about it I really liked about it is when I was up in the front lobby. I met, stuff, you know, the different shows you see on History Channel, the Tuskegee Airmen and Battle of the Bulge guys and all that stuff. I actually met a Tuskegee Airmen, I met a guy that was in the Battle of the Bulge.”

The final and most prestigious award is named for Troy Bowling, who’s put in more than 70,000 volunteer hours. Lexington’s other VA campus, off Cooper Drive near UK, is named for him. This year, the Troy Bowling Award goes to 89-year-old Doyle Rambo.

“I had no idea. There's more people I'm sure that that could have received that. But I'm thankful.”

“I saw you shaking your head when you were walking back to your chair almost as if, ‘I'm not sure if I really deserve this.’”

“That -- you pretty well said it right there. Did not deserve it.”

Volunteer Service Coordinator Patrick Sinclair says Rambo, who served in the Army reserves and Marine Corps in the late 1950s, did indeed deserve it. For the last 13 years, he’s delivered magazines and smiles to his fellow vets – and VA employees.

“Probably the best thing is the fellowship with people. I'll stick my head in the door, the nurse sitting there, secretary, doing nothing, I walk in, say hello to her and have a little chat and when I leave, she’s smiling. That kind of thing. Yeah, making people happy.”

Rambo says he has no plans to throttle down and watch TV. And yes, he’s aware he shares the same surname as a fictional Vietnam vet.

“Two differences between me and him -- he was Army and I was Marine. And the second difference is about $100 million in his favor.”

Then again, for staff and patients at Lexington’s VA, it’s hard to put a price on people like Doyle Rambo.

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John McGary is a Lexington native and Navy veteran with three decades of radio, television and newspaper experience.
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