Ex-Marine gets top Legion volunteer honor

John Lowe, recipient of the American Legion’s 2012 Distinguished Public Service Award, gets a wheelchair ready for a patient at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, where he spends much of his free time.

Former Marine John Lowe of James Island spends much of his free time at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, making sure veterans get the help they need.

The recipient of the American Legion’s 2012 Distinguished Public Service Award, Lowe helps veterans fill out paperwork, answers questions, gives directions, pushes wheelchairs, and jokes around with other volunteers behind the information desk.

He wants to make sure nobody feels like he did when he first walked in there in 1969.

Lowe had just gotten out of the Marines. The war was hard; coming back was even harder.

“When we came home, everybody was spitting on us and throwing things on us,” he said. “You couldn’t tell anybody you served in Vietnam, because if you did, you never got a job.”

Haunted by flashbacks, he went into the VA hospital for help. He entered a huge waiting room full of returning veterans. A few staff members sat behind glass working their way through the crowd. After 14 hours of waiting, Lowe lost his patience. He started pounding on the glass until they threatened to arrest him, and he walked out.

He found work driving trucks, which gave him space as he continued to battle his demons. He finally went back to the VA hospital in 2004 after a friend told him the place had changed.

Now patients are greeted by a throng of volunteers behind an information desk, who make every effort to get them the help they need. Lowe is one of 600 volunteers at the medical center and a half-dozen clinics around the Lowcountry, according to Tonya Lobbestael, the center’s public affairs officer.

Dick Walsh, commander of American Legion Post 147 on James Island, where Lowe is a member, nominated him for the legion’s highest award. Walsh said he was especially impressed that Lowe and his wife, Melody, took a homeless female veteran into their home for a year until she could get back on her feet. Now she’s working and taking civil engineering classes at Trident Technical College.

“That’s going a little bit above and beyond, as far as I was concerned,” Walsh said. “You talk about bringing your work home. That’s the one incident that stood out in my mind. But it’s not uncommon for him to gather up homeless veterans and have them over to the house for Sunday afternoon dinner or to watch a football game or have a cookout on a Saturday afternoon.”

Lowe was spending four days a week at the veterans hospital until he had to get a pacemaker in December. He’s down to two days a week although he hopes to increase that again as he gets stronger.

Despite his own health problems, Lowe is quick to push a wheelchair for a wounded soldier.

“When you see one that has lost a leg or lost an arm or can’t breathe because of something he’s ingested, you watch them and you can tell they’re struggling just to roll a wheelchair, so you get on it and say, ‘Come on, brother, we’ll go,’ ” Lowe said.

Jim Hawk, American Legion state adjutant, wrote Lowe a letter commending him.

“This, our most coveted award, recognizes the services of South Carolinians above and beyond the call of duty in their contribution to their community, state and nation,” Hawk said in the letter.

Lowe will get the award June 2 at a statewide American Legion Convention in Greenville.

“This award is for them (the veterans),” Lowe said. “That’s why I accepted it. I wouldn’t have accepted it other than that.”

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.