Veterans Find Community with Fellow Military Families at Patriots Colony

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Col. John Harms was on his way to enlist with the U.S. Navy when a persuasive Marines recruiter redirected him. (Submitted)
Col. John Harms was on his way to enlist with the U.S. Navy when a persuasive Marines recruiter redirected him. (Submitted)

Though their military careers moved them around the country and the world, Hal Campbell, John Harms and Dick Sklar all wound up in the same place.

The three friends, all Vietnam War veterans who met as residents of Patriots Colony, have found a peaceful retirement in the Williamsburg community among fellow retired military officers, federal civil employees and their spouses.

Harms, who currently chairs the committee tasked with organizing the Veterans Day and Memorial Day programs at Patriots Colony, described the sense of support and camaraderie at the retirement community as reminiscent of what they all experienced during their days of active duty.

“[My wife and I] looked at communities all over, but nowhere else were the people caring like they are here,” Campbell said. “That’s what’s so special about this place. We’ve all served, but you leave your rank at the door.”

Before moving to Patriots Colony, all three men had ties to Virginia and a passing familiarity with Williamsburg because of their military careers.

While familiarity and convenience – Harms wanted to be close to high-quality medical centers for his wife’s medical needs – played a part in each family’s decision to relocate to Williamsburg, the reason to stay is simply comfort.

“I have one word to describe Williamsburg: soft. There are no hard edges in Williamsburg. It’s beautiful,” Sklar said. “You can’t live in a more beautiful place.”

The move to Williamsburg came long after their decades-long careers with the U.S. Armed Forces.

Sklar and Campbell, who retired as a colonel and a lieutenant colonel, respectively, both served in the U.S. Army, while Harms rose to the rank of colonel with the U.S. Marines.

Of the three career military men, only Campbell had a lifelong dream to join the military. Inspired by the first time he had an up-close view of an airplane, Campbell decided he wanted to be a military pilot at 9 years old.

Though he intended to enlist in the U.S. Navy when he entered a recruiting office in downtown Atlanta, Harms exited the elevator on the wrong floor and ran into a persuasive recruiter for the Marines who convinced him to join his branch of the military instead.

Sklar had a football scholarship from the University of Missouri lined up, but he decided to attend West Point after his high school guidance counselor persuaded him to consider the military as a career path.

The War in Vietnam

All three men – each at different stages of their careers – were sent to Vietnam during the 1960s.

After graduating from West Point in 1962, Sklar spent a year training with a brigade stateside before heading overseas – a blessing and a curse, Sklar said.

“We were all close, you knew everyone. You had the support of the unit because you had trained with them every day for a year,” Sklar said. “But it was emotionally intense, because of course we had deaths. I had to identify bodies. I had to write letters to their families.”

Harms was deployed to Vietnam after completing training in Quantico in 1969. He was assigned the post of commanding officer of the First Armored Amphibious Company and served for nine months before his unit was recalled as the U.S. reduced its forces in Vietnam.

Hal Campbell decided he wanted to join the military after seeing his first plane up close at 9 years old. (Submitted)
Lt. Col. Hal Campbell decided he wanted to join the military after seeing his first plane up close at 9 years old. (Submitted)

Campbell went to Vietnam in 1963 as a pipeline pilot, which is a pilot not assigned to any particular unit. Between his first and second tours in Vietnam, he spent a short time training at Fort Eustis.

In March 1968, during his second deployment, Campbell and two other soldiers pulled more than 30 Vietnamese from a burning village. For that act of bravery, he received the Soldier’s Medal – but not until 2011 because of a paperwork oversight.

Military Values

The Vietnam War ended, but Campbell, Harms and Sklar all cite the lessons and values they learned in the military as the driving factor behind their success in subsequent military assignments and private ventures.

“I think I went to Vietnam as a boy and came out as a man at the end of that,” Sklar said. “The military really values bravery, professionalism, ethics, loyalty. All those things were so important when you’re shoulder to shoulder.”

One of Sklar’s greatest post-military achievements came in 1995, when he was recruited by U.S. West, now called Quest, to create a business school in Moscow from the ground up.

“The company was involved in nine joint ventures in Russia at the time and they realized that none of the executives in Russia knew anything about the market economy,” Sklar recalled, laughing. “Organizational ability and leadership, boy did that help in Russia.”

Campbell also put the leadership skills he learned in the military to use, earning a graduate degree in business administration from the College of William & Mary upon his return from the war. His next set of orders took him to Hawaii, where he was appointed director of transportation for the U.S. Army in the Pacific.

Like Campbell, Harms returned to Virginia for additional schooling after Vietnam. He got a master’s degree in counselor education at the University of Virginia in 1971 and later put it to use in San Diego, where he became one of the first education transition officers in the Marine Corps.

It was in that capacity that he was tasked with helping soldiers approaching their discharge date transition the skills they had learned in the military into ones they could use in the workforce.

“It was a phenomenal program,” Harms said. “Two hundred people went through the program, and we placed all of them [in jobs].”

Veteran Recognition – Then and Now

After graduating from West Point, Col. Dick Sklar spent a year in training before fighting in the Vietnam War. (Submitted)
After graduating from West Point, Col. Dick Sklar spent a year in training before fighting in the Vietnam War. (Submitted)

As the three friends reflected back on their military careers and looked forward to this year’s Veterans Day celebrations, they remarked on how the public’s recognition for their service has evolved from largely vitriolic to heartwarmingly appreciative.

Campbell, Harms and Sklar – along with most Vietnam veterans – had to deal with strong anti-military sentiments around the U.S. in the years during and after the war.

They described the difficulty of coming back from Vietnam to face a large and vocal portion of the public who opposed the war and everyone involved with it.

“I remember when I first stepped off the plane, a person came up and yelled ‘lady killer’ and spat at me,” Harms said.

At one point during the war, Sklar attended the University of Missouri to pursue his master’s of business administration degree. During that time, he was promoted to Major – an accomplishment he said was partially overshadowed by the turmoil surrounding the war.

“I couldn’t wear my uniform [on campus],” Sklar said, describing how he brought his uniform in a bag with him to his promotion ceremony rather than wear it outside and attract the attention of antiwar protesters.

Despite the cold welcome upon their immediate return, the men agree that how they have been treated as veterans has improved drastically for the better as the passage of time has given perspective to the difficult position they were put in as soldiers in an unpopular war.

“Some kids came [to Patriots Colony on Monday] and sang patriotic songs, and I cried,” Sklar said. “I can’t take that because of what happened to me before – ‘You’re bad, you’re bad, you’re bad’ – and then all of a sudden they appreciate you.”