Fort Worth

Unloved as a child, Korean War vet ‘feels obliged to give something back’

Ken Dillard adopted a motto that serves him well in retirement.

If you’re going to kill time, work it to death.

So when the 83-year-old veteran isn’t involved with church activities, or busy at home doing yard work, planting daffodil bulbs and fall pansies, he spends several days each month stationed behind the popcorn machine at the Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic.

Dillard sells fresh popcorn for $1 and $3 per bag.

The entertainment is free.

“What would you like to hear?” the Arlington resident asked, cheerfully, producing his harmonica.

Dillard taught himself to play hundreds of toe-tapping tunes, oldies mostly, from St. Louis Blues and Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey to the official song of each branch of the United States military.

Forgive him if he’s partial to Anchors Aweigh.

The lively notes of the Navy march — and the popcorn’s alluring aroma — wafted through the clinic lobby, drawing approving smiles.

The Navy vet, a retired postal carrier, is among about 70 active members of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Korean War Veterans Association. Chapter 215 is named after the late Gen. Walton H. Walker, first commander of the Eighth U.S. Army in Korea at the start of the Korean War.

Beginning five years after World War II, the 1950-53 conflict is often referred to as the “Forgotten War” that took the lives of 36,914 Americans and ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

Dillard’s group annually collects $12,000 to $14,000 in popcorn sales at the medical facility that serves more than 25,000 veterans in the North Texas area.

Proceeds go directly to several veterans’ service organizations, like the Honor Flight Network, a program which transports veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit national memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifice.

Other chapter donations help build homes for wounded veterans.

“The biggest benefit of what we do is interact with younger veterans who come back from recent wars,” said A.J. Key, president of the local Korean War Association chapter. “They tell us their stories. We tell them ours. It’s therapeutic for our veterans and I believe it carries over to veterans who are coming through the doors.”

Growing up an orphan

Dillard’s story began in the 1930’s during the Great Depression.

One of seven children, the Granger native grew up without his father, who died of a heart attack when Dillard was 18 months old. He was placed in a Waco orphans home. The day before his 11th birthday the kid his friends nicknamed “Peanut Butter” left the group home and rode a bus to Fort Worth to live with his mother who had remarried.

Like others of his generation the boy was no stranger to work.

Dillard took a job after school at a bowling alley, as a pin boy, earning six cents per game. He bought his first harmonica, a Hohner Marine Band model, for $2.50.

Two weeks after his graduation from Trimble Tech High School in 1952 the 19-year-old — expecting to be drafted — joined the Navy.

He soon found himself aboard the USS Colahan, harmonica in his pocket, sailing toward the Korean peninsula.

During the Korean War the lightly armored destroyer conducted shore bombardment and fire support to aid forces ashore. In rough seas, Dillard vividly recalled, the vessel sharply rose and fell, bobbing “like a fishing cork.” Crew members slept strapped into their bunks.

Dillard, a machinist’s mate, serenaded himself while on watch, bending notes on his harp in the sweltering heat of the ship’s engine room.

The sailor, who later attended UT-Arlington on the GI Bill, is still making music, at church events, nursing homes and weddings. Dillard also played at his sister’s funeral.

A love for country

Since 2011 he has logged almost 1,000 volunteer hours entertaining fellow veterans while collecting donations on behalf of his chapter. More than 140 volunteers — many of them vets — freely share their time at the medical facility. They distribute comfort items to patients, help staff the information desk and provide transportation to the clinic for veterans living in rural areas.

Dillard is proud of the 500-hour VA volunteer pin he wears on the crown of his black-and-gold Korean War veteran cap but what moves him to sudden tears is his love of country, symbolized by the flag and celebrated in music.

He thought of America The Beautiful. Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever. Veterans Day songs.

“I used to not be this way — as I get older I’m more emotional,” Dillard said, pausing to wipe his pale blue eyes. “Growing up I didn’t know what love was. I thought you were a sissy if you cried … Now, I just feel blessed. I feel obliged to give something back.”

So on several Mondays and Wednesdays he drives to the VA Clinic, ties on a bright blue apron and fires up the popper.

His harmonica is within reach, near the saltshaker.

Recently, two men entered the clinic together, heard the chords of happy music and were drawn by curiosity to its source.

“Would you play somethin’ for us?” one politely asked.

“What would you like?” Dillard replied.

As Ken dutifully honored their request, the men, in their 90’s, removed their World War II veteran caps and placed them over their hearts until the volunteer had blown the last sweet note of Amazing Grace.

Veterans Day events

11 a.m. , Tarrant County Veterans Day Parade, downtown Fort Worth. Starts with ceremony in Sundance Square before the parade begins. Best spots to see parade are on Main Street and Houston Street. Theme is “Honoring Blue and Gold Star Vietnam Veteran Families.” Sponsored by Tarrant County Veterans Council.

11 a.m., Veterans Day remembrance,Veterans Memorial Park, 4120 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth.

11 a.m., Dallas Veterans Day Parade, Young and Houston streets, downtown Dallas.

What’s open, closed

Most major banks, federal and state offices and the Postal Service will be closed Friday in observance of Veterans Day.

The New York Stock Exchange, most city and county offices and school districts are open.

The Trinity Rail Express will operate on a regular schedule.

Trash and recycling will be picked up as scheduled in most cities.