It was 1966 and there were 385,000 U.S. servicemen in Vietnam when college freshman Al Perry joined the Reserve Officers Training program.
Perry understood his decision could almost certainly lead to combat. But he believed it was his duty to serve.
As it turned out, by the time Perry earned his ROTC commission as a second lieutenant in 1970, the United States had begun winding down troop levels, and Perry did not see combat. But for the past 43 years, he has served active duty and military veterans. It’s his way of paying a debt to those who have risked their lives, have been wounded or died serving their country, he says.
Most people in Fresno know Perry, 68, for the years that he led the Veterans Affairs hospital and medical system in Fresno from 1998 to 2012. And the past three years, he has been known for his role as president and trip leader of Central Valley Honor Flight, an all-volunteer organization that takes World War II and Korean War veterans to Washington, D.C.
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“Al has not only respect and love for veterans, but he’s a guy who understands service and doing things for other people,” says Dr. Rick Geller, medical and managing director of the California Poison Control System located at Valley Children’s Hospital.
How can you say ‘no’ to World War II veterans?
Geller knows Perry through Central Valley Honor Flight. He’s gone on the last seven trips as the volunteer flight surgeon. He’s amazed at Perry’s organization and dedication. “He is a visionary leader and a phenomenal manager.”
Paul Loeffler, a founder of Central Valley Honor Flight, recruited Perry to take over the logistics of getting dozens of veterans who are in their 80s and 90s safely across the country and back home.
“The first thing he did was he got online and read the whole handbook of the national Honor Flight organization,” Loeffler says. “He’s wired to make sure he understands everything that has to be done, and then he devises a way to do it.”
Perry says he couldn’t turn down the Honor Flight assignment. “How can you say ‘no’ to World War II veterans?”
Each flight has been special, and Perry wipes his eyes as he talks about the veterans’ stories of valor. Some combat veterans continue to have nightmares 70 years after their service, he says, “and their stories would break your heart.”
Loeffler estimates that Perry has spent 50 hours a week for the past three years on Honor Flight duties. Some of that time has been spent fundraising. Each trip costs $185,000, Perry says. “And we’ve never had enough money ahead of time.”
Valley residents and business owners have always come through, though. Central Valley Honor Flight has raised $2.3 million from 2,800 individuals, small businesses, credit unions, service clubs, tractor pulls and car shows, Perry says.
Stepping down from Honor Flight
But now, after 12 trips with 800 veterans, Perry is stepping down at the end of this year as president and trip leader. He has a mother and brother with health challenges on the East Coast who need more of his time.
Loeffler says the organization will have to figure out how to replace him. “He’s the guy with endless energy. He’s set the standard for the rest of us.”
Perry also set a high bar for the VA Central California Healthcare System, says Danielle Shapazian, chief of quality management service. Shapazian, a registered nurse, worked with Perry throughout his tenure at the Fresno facility.
Under his leadership, clinical services expanded, and he got funds for new buildings, she says. The VA built clinics in Tulare, Merced and Oakhurst. And significantly, Perry led a drive during the height of the Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom wars to care for the new veterans, she says. “We’re still serving those veterans.”
When he came to the Fresno VA in 1998, Perry says the hospital was in the bottom half of all VA hospitals for quality and other standards. In 2009, it was ranked fourth out of 139.
“I’m very proud of what the team we put together did,” he says.
A self-described “challenge junkie,” Perry says turning around the Fresno VA fit with other duties he’d embraced over his almost four-decade career with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Among the assignments: acting clinical director and lead negotiator in the Philippines, director of the U.S. government’s Federal Medical Disaster Stations after hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Gustav and Ike in 2008.
Perry began his career with the VA in 1974 after serving from 1971 to 1973 as an officer with the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps. He had graduated and earned an ROTC commission from Middlebury College in Vermont in 1970.
The United States had begun withdrawing troops from Vietnam, and Perry was told he would not be going to the war, as would have been normal for his second year in the medical service corps – “unless” he signed an agreement to become a “regular” Army career officer and serve another eight years on active duty. Perry instead opted to complete his two-year ROTC agreement and was transferred to Fort Carson, Colo.
He got an honorable discharge and returned to civilian life, looked for a job, entered graduate school in public administration and healthcare administration, and took some time off to ride a motorcycle throughout Europe.
Perry makes a point during an interview to say he’s a Vietnam “era” veteran who did not see combat. But don’t get him wrong; he’s proud of his service. And he’s quick to tell other noncombat veterans they should be, too (“You wore the uniform. You took the oath.”).
He soon found that working for Veterans Affairs suited him. It was another way to serve.
“It gave me a sense that I’ve contributed here. This is worthwhile,” he says.
The service was not always easy for Perry and his family: It meant eight moves in 38 years for himself, wife Jean and their two now-grown daughters.
Sharing a love for snow
But Perry took pleasure in helping injured veterans. And nothing has pleased him more than being able to help Fresnan Cliff Finch, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who is his same age.
“When I was in ROTC, he was on a fire base on the Cambodian border of Vietnam,” Perry says. “Finch earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.”
When Perry and Finch met in 2008, Finch was paralyzed. He had been shot multiple times by police in September 2007 after a high-speed chase. A judge sentenced Finch to five years of probation after finding he had post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in Vietnam.
During Finch’s recovery from the gunshot wounds, his wife, Joan Finch, approached Perry about physical rehabilitation for her husband. Perry agreed to help. He sent Finch to the VA hospital in Palo Alto, which has a spinal cord injury program. Finch continued his rehabilitation in Fresno.
Joan Finch says Perry “was like an angel to us.”
For a busy man to take a personal interest made a difference, she says. “It was a very difficult time for us. It was like our world had just caved in.”
Perry discovered he and Finch shared a love for the snow. Finch is the father of former Olympic snowboarder Andy Finch. Perry, a longtime avid skier, teaches skiing to blind veterans and is a member of the Break the Barriers board of directors. Break the Barriers provides children and adults with opportunities to participate in athletic and sporting activities. In 2011, Perry helped get a Break the Barriers grant to provide coaching and training for veterans.
He doesn’t want to miss the fun – he’s a part of it all.
Deby Hergenrader, CEO and co-founder of Break the Barriers
Deby Hergenrader, CEO and co-founder of Break the Barriers, says Perry has a coach’s heart. “He’s not just on the board helping with fundraising and directing policies; he’s coaching himself. He rolls up his sleeves. He doesn’t want to miss the fun – he’s a part of it all.”
For Finch’s recovery, Perry organized a trip to Aspen, Colo., to an adaptive ski clinic.
“I could be a part of him getting back up on a snowboard,” Perry says.
Cliff Finch says, “I couldn’t believe it. To be back on the snow. To see me walk, you would have wondered, but I could snowboard way better than I could walk.”
A picture of Finch perched on the snowboard alongside his son is one of Perry’s favorites among newspaper clippings he has kept over the years.
Helping Finch “was me paying a debt,” he says. “I’ll admit that. Part of this is my paying a debt because my age peers died while I was in college.”
Perry has been told that his debt to veterans has been paid in full. “That’s great,” he says, but there’s little chance he’ll stop serving them.
“I have 43 years of taking care of … veterans,” he says. “Forty-three years – and counting.”
Veterans Day Parade
What: Biggest Veterans Day parade west of the Mississippi River
Where: Downtown Fresno
When: Opening ceremonies 10:30 a.m. at Fresno City Hall. Parade starts at P Street and Tulare Avenue at 11 a.m. Parade concludes at Chukchansi Stadium.
Who: Grand marshal is Lt. Col. Oliver North, retired Marine Corps