Old soldier Alan Belcher has no intention of fading away. There’s too much to do.
He officially “retired” May 1 as executive director of TLS Veterans, a McHenry County nonprofit dedicated to providing services to veterans in need. Besides its well-known transitional living shelter in Hebron for homeless veterans, the group offers counseling, training and other programs to those who served in the Armed Forces.
But while the 67-year-old Woodstock native isn’t heading the agency anymore, he plans to continue serving the veterans’ community as long as he is able. As a professional counselor, he draws upon his experiences serving in combat as an infantryman with the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam.
The Army’s warrior code has four inviolable rules: Put the mission first, never quit, never accept defeat and never leave a fallen comrade. For Belcher, quitting would be unthinkable.
Senior reporter Kevin Craver, a former Army infantryman himself, talked with Belcher about his plans for the future.
Craver: Why are you stepping down?
Belcher: To be honest, it’s a matter of doing the best job possible, and I’m starting to wake up tired and go to bed tired. I knew I was starting to not serve in the capacity that they needed the service.
Craver: So basically, it was just time?
Belcher: It was just time, yeah. Not that I can’t go on and keep doing good things, but it’s just the daily grind that I can’t keep up with.
Most people don’t realize that TLS Veterans has gotten as large as it has. It now has more than 30 employees and satellite offices in all three VA hospitals in northeastern Illinois. We’re a relatively large agency compared to when I first started. It was nothing – just an idea in a couple of veterans’ heads, and it took off from there.
Craver: When did your interest in veterans begin?
Belcher: It started when I enlisted. I volunteered for the draft and went in 1968. By April I was on the plane to Vietnam. During the short period on that plane, Martin Luther King was killed and I turned 21.
Craver: I turned 21 in the service. I don’t remember a thing, but I was told I had a very good time. How long were you in country?
Belcher: Thirteen and a half months.
Craver: I won’t ask you to rehash what you did over there – I wouldn’t go through what you did for anything.
Belcher: I told the story at my retirement about a time that we were in a defoliated area, and we had to move from one hilltop to another. It was a click [Army slang for a kilometer], and during the course of that click, click and a half, I got sunstroke. I was walking along and feeling god-awful. One guy walked by and took something off my back. Another guy took something else. Before I knew it, all I had was my rifle and my ammo, and that was a huge, huge deal.
Nobody asked me or said a word, but it meant a lot to me, and does so to this day. I had that commitment to them, they had that commitment to me, that I have to this day – if there’s anything I can do for a vet, I’ll do it.
One of those guys was at my retirement. I asked him if he remembered that day and he said, “Hell, yeah.” That was cool, let me tell you.
Craver: When it comes to helping veterans, the people of this county have stepped up to that challenge.
Belcher: That they have.
Craver: But there’s a communication gap. You can explain these issues to a civilian all you want, but only a veteran can truly understand.
Belcher: I think people nowadays try very, very hard to understand. I don’t know that you can grasp it unless you were there. I find myself helping veterans understand the significance of their experiences on their life, and even they don’t get it entirely.
Craver: As to how much it changed you?
Belcher: Oh God, yes. I find myself going over this stuff and having a new understanding even now, 45 years later, and grasping things in a new and different way, and I anticipate I’ll be doing that the rest of my life.
Craver: What are you going to do in your free time?
Belcher: I have an old Vietnam-era Army jeep. I’m trying to find the time to work on it.
Craver: How did you get your hands on that?
Belcher: A guy who lives between Woodstock and Harvard had it. They’re very, very rare. I saw it in the newspaper, went out and bought it on the spot. I’m also going to go fishing once in a while – I haven’t gotten around to that yet – and travel a little bit here and there.
The Belcher lowdown
Who is he? Alan Belcher, longtime veterans’ advocate
Family? Wife, Gay, a grown son and daughter, and three grandchildren
Favorite book? “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Favorite food? Pizza