Jim Campbell: Serving With Honor

By Jeanne Nagle | November 11, 2019 | Profiles

To hear him tell it, Jim Campbell ’70 had one heck of a good reason for wanting to do well as a UWSP undergrad. “Getting drafted and going to Vietnam drove me a lot harder to study on weekends than getting a piece of paper that said I got a B.S. in something,” he says.

The prospect of flunking out and getting drafted also seems to have played a prominent role in the decision Campbell made to sign up for the Platoon Leader Course (PLC)—the Marines version of ROTC or Officer Candidate School—at the start of his sophomore year, with the goal of joining a reserve unit. In PLC, college students agree to spend six weeks attending boot camp near Quantico, Virginia, over the course of two summers; when they graduate from college, they receive their officer’s commission in addition to their diploma. What clinched the deal for Campbell was when a group of reservists set down two helicopters in front of Smith Hall to escort him and five other candidates to PLC initiation in Glenview, Illinois.

“That hooked me hook, line and sinker,” he recalls. “This smelly, vibrating, leaking machine flying at a full five hundred feet or something … I thought, this is what I want to fly.”

Before he could realize his plan of flying choppers for the Marine Corp Reserves, however, fate stepped in and took Campbell another type of wild ride. He spent an extra semester at UWSP because he had to retake a calculus class. Since the PLC did not grant extensions, he sent a letter respectfully “disenrolling” himself.

Following his graduation from UWSP in January 1970, Campbell and some friends headed to Miami Beach for what is now known as a “gap year.” But, to his surprise, the PLC came calling once more. “I got a letter from the Marine Corps that said ‘all those tests that you took are good for one more month,’” he says.

After some persuasion from his former Marine father and his college roommate, who had signed up for the Navy aviation program (“He and my dad got all over me like stink on a dog”), Campbell signed up for another round of boot camp. This time he finished the PLC program, earned his commission and basically talked his way into a Reserve squadron flying COBRAs—his helicopter of choice.

Campbell was deployed a number of times during his years as a reservist, including coming to the aid of Americans in various Middle Eastern cities as tensions increased in the region during the early 1970s. But he never got sent into the conflict that had motivated him to study so hard years before.

“Had I graduated on time and gone in the Marine Corps as scheduled, I would have been in Vietnam,” he says. “If I had got any other airplanes other than the COBRA, six months later, I'd have been to Vietnam. So I was lucky. Many times I should have been over there.”

Arguably, a heightened sense of sympathy for his comrades who did see action in Vietnam influenced Campbell’s decision, years later, to start Never Forgotten, part of the Honor Flight Network that flies veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit memorials, in order to help them begin to heal. At lunch one day, a friend from IBM, where Campbell had worked for almost 30 years, mentioned going on an Honor Flight mission with his father shortly before the older gentleman had passed away. The friend had considered starting a similar organization in Milwaukee, and mentioned that Campbell should do the same covering his neck of the woods in northern Wisconsin.

“I said, ‘That sounds like a great idea, but I’m too busy,’” recalls Campbell. “’I’m still working. Maybe when I retire.’”

But the idea stuck in his head. About a year after that lunch, Campbell contacted Honor Flight’s national headquarters in Ohio and began investigating how to start a branch of the nonprofit in his area. After filling out an application and putting in time acting as a “guardian,” or escort, on other Honor Flights, Campbell and Mike Thompson, the brother of a former business acquaintance, opened the doors to Never Forgotten Honor Flight in January 2010.

Currently, Campbell is listed as the organization’s cofounder and vice president of marketing, while Thompson is cofounder and president. They are joined by a board of directors, each of whom has “a distinct area of responsibility” when it comes to company operations. And here’s the kicker—every person on staff, including the cofounders, works on a volunteer basis.

“We get to double our pay every year because we're so good,” Campbell jokes.

Flights are supported by donations from sponsors, including large corporations all the way to “the 10-year-old girl who sold lemonade and cookies at the end of her driveway,” says Campbell.

Never Forgotten’s first flight on a chartered 737 consisted of 103 World War II veterans and their guardians. Today, there is a four-year wait list that encompasses veterans from WWII all the way through the Vietnam conflict.

Campbell finds the work incredibly rewarding and humbling.

“I’ve watched men that I escorted to the wall for the first time and watched them touch their best friend's name on the wall, and watched that man change right in front of me to a different human being,” he marvels.

“It's like you're helping a brother in arms. It doesn't matter what uniform, you know? On an Honor Flight, you're one hundred brothers, and you bond.”

As the years pass, the number of WWII and Korean veterans who want to book passage on an Honor Flight diminishes. There is still strong demand by Vietnam vets, and Campbell notes that Honor Flights across the country will need to decide whether to begin transporting a new generation of servicemembers once the National Desert Storm and Desert Shield Memorial opens in 2021. If it was up to Campbell, he says he would keep running flights “until there are no more veterans left to fly.”

“Every generation of veterans that they’ve built a memorial for deserves an Honor Flight.”


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