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Livingston veteran's service continues

Denis Wells joined the Air Force when he was just 17.

It was wartime -- the Vietnam War was escalating in 1965 -- and Wells figured he'd probably be sent to the Indochinese country.

He was right.

Wells, 64, spent 19 months in Vietnam, most of it in a Huey-43 helicopter, an aircraft built to be used for medical evacuations. His job was to help pick up downed pilots and wounded soldiers. Because there was almost no place for helicopters to land, the personnel on the helicopter had to rappel down to the soldiers.

The wounded were transported to hospitals, and the dead to a mortuary in the Philippines. Despite the death and destruction Wells saw, he retains an upbeat attitude about his time in a foreign war.

"I was lucky," Wells said. "I got to see the good we were doing by saving lives every day. It wasn't all just bad."

After Vietnam, Wells decided to stay in the Air Force, and he made a 20-year career out of it, retiring in 1985. He was stationed at Castle Air Force Base from 1974 to 1980, and remembers when a KC-135 went down at the base in 1979, cartwheeling after a wing hit the runway. The crash killed a handful of people.

"I was in the fire department, we helped get two of them out," Wells said. "They survived, and I got a commendation for that."

After he retired from the Air Force, Wells worked 20 years for the U.S. Postal Service, retiring in 2006.

Even before retirement, Wells decided to devote as much of his time as he could to helping veterans.

Wells is well-known in the Livingston community, where he and his wife of 13 years, Sue, live. Wells got involved in the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization after Vietnam, and he keeps the Livingston/Delhi VFW going.

Wells just finished a stint as the VFW commander for the state for 2009-2010, and he and his wife are getting ready for a trip to the Dominican Republic, a thank-you from the national VFW commander.

The Livingston/Delhi VFW veterans' hall in Livingston is a busy place. Once a month, the organization sponsors a hamburger night and a weekend breakfast. It's not about fast food, it's about the community.

"We had 97 people at hamburger night last time," Wells said. "They come to be with each other, to talk and socialize. It takes us a while to cook, but they don't care. They come to see people."

Sue Wells is also involved in the VFW -- in the ladies' auxiliary.

"My dad was in World War II," Sue Wells said. "I got involved in the VFW originally because of my dad's service."

Sue Wells served as the state president for the ladies' auxiliary in 2009-2010. The women in the Livingston/Delhi VFW cook, run a rummage sale and basically focus on raising money.

"Our rummage sales and the thrift table at the breakfasts and dinners are very popular," she said. The VFW also collects items to ship to soldiers, sending off boxes every three months. "Last time we sent 24 boxes," she added.

Both of them believe in working hard for veterans.

"I'm looking for members," Denis Wells said. "When the membership goes down, Congress tends to forget about veterans."

Wells said Congress has been consistently whittling down veterans' benefits, and he doesn't think that's good. "We fought to get those benefits, and we have to keep on fighting," he said.

The couple's work doesn't go unnoticed by the community of Livingston.

"Military veterans in Livingston and California generally have no stronger advocate than Denis Wells," said Kim Yancey, former editor of the Livingston Chronicle newspaper. "He and his wife, Sue, have spent countless hours safeguarding the rights of those who once served in uniform, the traditions tied to national holidays, such as Veterans Day and Memorial Day, and the memories of the men and women who gave their lives for freedom."

Wells is not giving up the fight for veterans. His wife said he's very good at looking out for veterans. Money was recently raised by VFWs across the country to donate to studying and treating the effects of Agent Orange.

But it's not all veterans in the Wellses' lives.

"We're aiming to help veterans, youth and the community," Denis Wells said.

That's exactly what the couple is doing, and Livingston is better for their work.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com.

EDITOR'S NOTE: 'Merced Matters' appears every Monday. In it we will tell the stories of Mercedians -- ordinary people doing extraordinary things, extraordinary people doing ordinary things and a lot in between. We hope you like our effort to let you know more about others in our community, and we welcome your suggestions. Please contact Mike Tharp at mtharp@mercedsun-star.com or (209) 385-2456 with your ideas for 'Merced Matters.'

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