John was stationed on the beautiful island of Oahu, Hawaii, at Pearl Harbor, where he was a crewman aboard the Destroyer Escort ship, USS Knox (DE-1052). His incident didn’t happen during a fierce battle at sea, it happened while his ship was in dry dock for repairs. John was part of a detail conducting the important task known to sailors as “chip and paint”.
Chip and paint entailed endless hours and days of needle gunning, and sanding to remove the old paint, followed by endless hours and days of protecting the surfaces with a fresh coat of new paint in order to control corrosion. The military widely used lead based paints because of its durability. However, little was known about its toxicity. During those days they didn’t have personal protective equipment to prevent inhalation of the paint dust.
There were over 2.7 million Airmen, Marines, sailors and soldiers who served in the Vietnam War. During the 19 years of combat, over 58,000 veterans lost their lives and just over 300,000 were injured while engaged in both combat and non-combat rolls.
A Vietnam Era veteran wants to help his fellow vets.
John Stites, a Vietnam era, disabled and honorably discharged Navy Veteran was one of these individuals. It wasn’t enemy fire that ended John’s career in the U.S. Navy, forever changing his path in life. It was an unseen, silent assailant known as lead poisoning.
These injuries ranged in severity from minor scrapes and bruises to life altering, traumatic events.
There were also many veterans who suffered with injuries that could not be seen and if not properly diagnosed or treated could lead to long term negative effects.
It wasn’t long until this toxic assault on John would get the upper hand, causing him to be hospitalized. After his treatment, he would be released from the hospital, then soon after released from service to the Navy on an honorable, medical discharge and placed on military disability. Treatment will only remove the lead from the body. However, any damage that happened is irreversible.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, exposure to lead can cause changes in:
John’s exposure was extremely debilitating and life changing. He would have to contend with many of the above listed health issues on a daily basis, making ordinary tasks challenging to say the least. One setback after another took a toll on John’s emotional health, which affected every other aspect of his life, especially his ability to maintain steady employment, because many people didn’t know about or understand his health conditions and the jobs that he could get didn’t provide him with the same satisfaction he experienced while in the Navy.
He longed for the camaraderie that he shared with his shipmates and the fulfillment he received by being a part of something bigger than himself. He was proud to be in the U.S. Navy where he felt accepted and at home. These were feelings that John thought he would never experience again, which left an empty space in his heart.
Fate seemed to be playing a cruel trick on him. Instead of a bright future filled with challenge and adventure, he would be faced with an uncertain future, no direction, no sense of pride, no reward and no appreciation or respect.
In 1973 a friend invited him to join the American Legion. It proved to be just what he needed to find some peace and acceptance. John remains a very active member of the American Legion, the Sons of the American Legion and the VFW up to this very day. It is where he found his calling and where he dedicated his life to selflessly helping his fellow veterans, their families and the community. Johns wife, Maralea
Stites is also an active member of the Ladies Auxiliary, serving as the Sergeant at Arms and 1ST Vice.
John was especially dedicated to being a member of the Honor Guard providing funeral ceremonies for fallen veterans. As the Chaplin and Ordained Minister, he would often be given the privilege of presenting the eulogies during the ceremonies.
Over the years he would be appointed to several key positions with these organizations ranging from; Sergeant at Arms, Historian, Chaplain and First Vice. He would also be appointed as a member of the board of directors for the Veterans Day Parades and marched with his post on numerous occasions.
These positions provided John with a sense of accomplishment and pride in his professional life. However, he was still struggling in his personal life. Making ends meet and keeping a roof over their heads would be a constant stressor for him and Maralea and bouts of homelessness would plague them on several occasions. But, even while they were living in their vehicle and calling the parking lot of a local truck stop home, they would never miss a meeting with any of the organizations that they were members of, or turn their backs on any veteran who needed help and John still faithfully wore his uniform and proudly marched with his fellow veterans during honor guard details.
John and Maralea are the kind of people who put other people’s problems ahead of their own. They were there for anyone who needed help without any regard for reward or personal gain other than the personal satisfaction they got from doing a good deed for someone.
John is always trying to find new ways to honor and help help his fellow veterans in any way that he possibly can. His dream is to create his own nonprofit organization that he would call "The Rolling Memorial". The Rolling Memorial was a former police cruiser that he bought to customize with his logo and a variety of graphics from our military’s past, up to the present, to use at funerals, parades and special events, to honor our troops, to help raise awareness about our armed forces, inspire future generations to follow in the footsteps of patriots past and to help nonprofit veteran organizations to raise funding for their projects.
John later purchased a 1999 Ford pick up truck that he applied custom graphics to promote military history and draw attention to the aviation museum that John and Maralea both worked at.
He invested a great deal of time, enthusiasm and what limited funding he could spare out of his retirement to try and get things rolling, but there was never enough money to get very far. John tried his best to get local interest and support for his vision, but, living in a small town with a poor economy, returned little to no results.
A little over six months ago, they would be hit with two more devastating blows and during a global pandemic to boot. The first hit was when the county informed them that the camper that they called home for nearly two years, would have to be moved from the trailer park, because it wasn’t considered a mobile home. The second blow was delivered by the Corona virus when the museum they worked at was forced to shut down, leaving them both unemployed. They didn’t know what they would do, or where they would go.
It is just ashamed that a nearly 70 year old disabled veteran and his wife of 23 years, also dealing with severe health issues herself, would have to go through this. They deserved better!!!
Two friends that have known John and Maralea for a long time invited them to move to Kentucky and stay with them. There they would have a chance of a better life and a better opportunity to get their nonprofit up and running. As soon as they arrived and got settled in, they began burning the midnight oil to breathe new life into this project.
During the concept and development phase, they asked themselves two important questions. Number one is, how they can best serve the nation's heroes and number two, what could they do that would have the biggest positive impact without creating programs that will compete with other groups for funding resources. They decided to take John's original idea and add their own touch to it.
They will use their particular talents and skill sets that range from marketing, advertising, promotion and fundraising to graphic design, website design, SEO and social media marketing to provide valuable services that can raise the funding needed to help other nonprofits achieve their goals more efficiently and more cost effectively.