Two veterans in East King County are just two of many working to help other veterans.
North Bend veteran Jim Curtis doesn’t mince words. If he supports something, you’ll know it.
The same can be said about things he’s not a fan of. He’s vocal about his disdain for President Donald Trump and his actions while in office. And politicians, in general, who use veterans as a means for election.
“Politicians use us to get elected or re-elected,” Curtis said. “But after they accomplish that goal, it’s sayonara until it’s time for campaigning again.”
He channels his ideas through poetry. Mostly, he pours the passion into helping other veterans.
The cause that had his attention on Oct. 24 was this year’s Mother Brundage Memorial Raffle. He was raising funds for the family of Andrew Yoder, a U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran who was killed when a crane crashed down in Seattle last spring. The raffle would happen a few weeks later, on Nov. 10, the Marine Corps birthday.
Curtis sold tickets for $5 at the North Bend QFC and Mount Si Sports and Fitness. Even as he traveled south to the American Lake VA Medical Center in his red, 2011 Ford Ranger truck, he pushed for others to purchase raffle tickets.
When he approached the check-in desk, after briefly responding to a question prompted by the man at the counter, he popped his own.
“We’re doing this raffle…,” he often began his pitch. Curtis would often end his interactions with the words “Semper Fi,” the Marine Corps motto and short for semper fidelis — a Latin phrase that translates to mean “always faithful.”
“Semper Fi,” he’d say before leaving.
He used similar words each time, having memorized the phrases he echoed to try and convince the listener on the importance of the raffle. And, of course, to shell out some cash to help.
But what could one expect? When it came to serving — especially when Curtis did, during the highly-controversial Vietnam War — it was other veterans who understood. And it was other veterans who offered their support. Even if that support meant hanging flyers in a VA hospital nearly 55 miles south from Curtis’s North Bend home. Or when it meant reaching out to politicians again. And again. And again.
Before he began fundraising for Yoder’s family, Curtis was busy commuting south to Olympia, where he testified before state House and Senate committees. He thought Purple Heart license plates, those given to wounded military or family of those killed in action, should be issued free of payment of any fees or taxes. He had his own Purple Heart, after shrapnel from a mortar blast flew into his back, legs and derriere. This happened in 1969, during his first year in Vietnam, where he was a machine gunner.
Curtis presented the idea to Democrat Paul Graves, at the time house representative for District 5. When Lisa Callan was elected into the seat in November 2018, after defeating Graves by more than 3,000 votes, she approached him on his idea. She had met him previously while doorbelling in the area.
“(The change) was the very least of what we could do to say ‘Thank you,’” Callan said by phone, on Veterans Day. “It gives veterans a way to share their story by even having that plate… We need to do so much more for those who receive the Purple Heart and their families.”
Curtis has other causes now. He’s invited Rep. Callan to visit the VA hospital he visits regularly, to see the condition of the buildings and to hopefully get some kind of change. The facilities are in a degraded state, compared to the state of medical buildings elsewhere, Curtis said. The walls have dark scuff marks, in some spots reaching about a foot in height. And for veterans, who sacrificed their time and had their lives on the line, it just wasn’t up to par. Callan hasn’t yet paid a visit to the hospital, but said that was in the works.
His other effort entails getting Gregory “Pappy” Boyington’s name recognized somewhere along the Medal of Honor Memorial Highway. Boyington was a graduate of Lincoln High School in Tacoma and an American combat pilot.He received the honor, the highest and most prestigious, after he spent months shy of two years in a Japanese prison camp.
“There are plaques honoring vets there, but no Pappy in sight,” Curtis said.
For another veteran, Curtis is simply looking for answers on why stem cell therapy is given to active-duty military at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and not an option for a disabled veteran Curtis knows in North Bend. The center serves “military beneficiaries in the Washington, D.C. area as well as those from across the country and around the globe,” according to its website.
He has contacted Congresswoman Kim Schrier about the issue, and has been having back-and-forth conversations with her staff. They’ve discussed a meeting with the doctor he knocked on doors for, who worked at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Issaquah for 17 years prior to running for Congress. According to Schrier’s communication’s director, Elizabeth Carlson, a visit to Walter Reed is in the works for next year.
But it’s not only Curtis helping other veterans. Marine veteran and Redmond resident Mark Gorman has been working to locate safe spaces for veterans without homes to sleep. He started the effort in 2004, when he owned a shop in Kingston. Everyday he spotted an older man fishing. And after that first initial contact, he struck up a friendship with the homeless man.
“At one point, he just wasn’t there fishing anymore,” Gorman said. Three and four weeks went by, and Gorman decided to find the man’s “hide” — the safe spot he had carved out for himself outdoors. “This guy’s all alone, no family. He died on his own of malnutrition and his heart gave up.”
In the U.S., on a single night in January 2018, there were more than 37,800 veterans experiencing homelessness, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Of that number on that same night, about 23,300 were living unsheltered. Although there was a 5.4 percent decrease from the previous year, in the estimated number derived from the point-in-time count, Gorman said there’s still a need.
When he moved to the Eastside in 2013, he realized there was an even bigger need locally. He began to help veterans, who for different, complex reasons, had lost their housing. Some he could help. Others, he said, weren’t “mentally ready for the world.”
They camp out in tents, others in trailers, some sleep in cars in church parking lots. Others sleep in Gorman’s backyard.
“Three things in life we do as veterans… sacrifice, duty and selflessness,” Gorman said of his reasoning for helping. “If those three things are not instilled in a boy as a young man, he will never become a real man. A man sacrifices for not only family and self but also for others around him.”
While at the VA that cloudy afternoon in October, Curtis struck up a conversation with a gentleman who was also pushing his own cause to help veterans. He had acquired small American flags from another, and pinned one to Curtis’s lapel, on the opposite side of where his Purple Heart medal pin sat. In exchange, Curtis offered a poem he wrote for sergeant first class Nathan Chapman, the first soldier killed during the war in Afghanistan. He was from Puyallup.
“Someday we’ll talk about this war, just like those we’ve had before,” was one line he recited in the waiting room. And the spectator, in response, cried. The two shook hands and bonded over the shared experience of serving the country.
Curtis turned to walk away, but not before saying “Semper Fi.”