Local Korean War veterans chapter going inactive

Matthew Lane • Jan 28, 2019 at 9:20 AM

KINGSPORT — The local chapter of the Korean War Veterans Association has gone inactive as of January.

Though its members are still dedicated to preserving the memory of all who served during the Forgotten War, the men of Mountain Empire Chapter 289 felt it best to go out now, with a smooth ending, rather than wait until there was a last man standing.

The Times News recently sat down with four of the chapter’s members to talk about why they chose to dissolve, their accomplishments over the years and what the future holds for them. Those interviewed include Robert Shelton (founder of Chapter 289), Arlen Hensley, Fred Rountree and Fred Himelwright.

The history behind the creation of Chapter 289 dates back to 2002 when Shelton was thinking about ways to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the cease fire of the Korean War (which occurred in July 1953). He had already joined the national association and was attending a Christmas party of a local KWVA chapter in Norton.

“It was a big group, the camaraderie was exceptional, and you could feel the warmth and togetherness,” Shelton said of the Christmas gathering. “I thought to myself it’s a shame we can’t have that in the Tri-Cities area.”

So Shelton talked to the commander at Norton about establishing a chapter in the Tri-Cities.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you take the ball and go with it?’ Shelton said. “I said, ‘I guess I can do that.’ I came down here with that challenge. We had our 12 men in short order (the number required to be an official chapter) and we got our charter in March 2003.”

The mission statement of Chapter 289 is to be a living memorial for those who served in the Korean War. Its members have done so by going into the local high schools and working with JROTC programs, marching in parades throughout the Tri-Cities, attending Veterans Day and Memorial Day events and visiting veterans at the VA Mountain Home.

The chapter also holds special events around the holidays and raises money to assist veterans in times of need. At its high point, the chapter had more than 30 members. Today, the number is around seven with more than half the members having passed away.

Members originally wanted to push the dissolution of the chapter to 2020, the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Most of the members are pushing 90 years old and Shelter said they thought that would be a good ending to the organization.

“But we started to get ragged and were having health problems. ... We decided to end it smoothly,” Shelton said.

A Christmas dinner in December was the chapter’s last official meeting.

“It was basically the same ones doing everything,” Hensley said. “This group here was doing everything. It got down to where no one else wanted to do anything.”

Even though Chapter 289 is official no more, Shelton and his brothers still plan to get together on the third Thursday of every month (just like always), but informally and just to socialize.

“We’ll still participate in Veterans Day and Memorial Day events, and we have a practice of if any members pass away, we’ll render a final salute,” Shelton said.

“We go the funeral home, walk up the casket and render a final salute for our brother who has passed away,” Hensley explained.

“And we’ll continue to do that as long as we have enough members to render it,” Shelton said.

Rountree is one of the younger members of the chapter. His father was shot down during the Korean War and is MIA. Rountree, who served in the Army, was stationed in Korea. He met his wife there.

“What the community is going to miss is the exposure we had at the parades. We won’t be carrying the banner, and we won’t be doing any marching,” Rountree said. “We’re still going to the VA, we’re still doing our (holiday) events. We’re not going away. We’re just not doing as much and not in an official capacity.”

From 1953 until 1985, there wasn’t a national organization for the Korean War veterans. It took nearly another 30 years for there to be a local chapter where veterans from the Forgotten War could come together, share their experiences and preserve the memory of those who served.

For Himelwright, the dissolution of the chapter will leave a void in his life.

“I feel an emptiness. It’s not like a drop of water where the ocean runs back in. For us individually, I’m going to miss doing this,” Himelwright said. “Rather than continue on with another year where we would have minimal participation, we decided to end it. Our numbers are dwindling, and it’s just a fact of life.”