I contacted retired Air Force CMSgt. John Stewart for the first time on March 30, 2010, after I read somewhere about the case of his son, Army Sgt. 1st Class Kelly A. Stewart, a highly-decorated Green Beret combat veteran who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to eight years behind bars after being convicted by a court-martial panel of an assortment of charges. After more than 100 email exchanges and dozens of phone calls since then, I thought I had a good feel for the kind of man Chief Stewart — a veteran of Air Force Special Operations — truly was. But I was wrong.
During a May 11, 2011, interview with Kelly, who was released on parole from the U.S. Military Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth March 31 after his sentence was reduced to three years, I learned more about Chief Stewart. A lot more.
“There was a time after I graduated the ‘Q Course’” — that’s the Qualification Course for prospective members of the Special Forces — “and I was getting ready to go downrange to Iraq,” Kelly said. Then his dad, a longtime member of VFW Post #4252 in Hernando, Fla., took him out to a National Homeless Day event in downtown Ocala, Fla.
“There’s been a couple of times in my military career when my dad’s had me show up in my military uniform… but the one for National Homeless Day kind of really bothered me,” Kelly said, his voice breaking up. “I really had no clue. I was blind to it, and I think a lot of people in society are blind to it.”
“We’re at this thing, and my dad’s like, ‘We’re going to hoist this flag up to half-mast and play taps, you know, for National Homeless Day,’ and I was thinking, ‘National Homeless Day?’
“My dad gets up there and starts talking about the percentage and number of homeless people that are here in the United States and how about 85 percent of those people are Vietnam vets or veterans as a whole,” he explained. “I had no clue. I’m seeing people in wheelchairs, and there’s a bunch of homeless people there; it really hit me (that) my dad was trying to take care of them, people he served with. It was an honor for me to do it.
“Here he is referencing me, being a Green Beret getting ready to go downrange, and I’m looking at heroes sitting in front of me, and I wasn’t a hero. Small things like that that he does make me so proud of him.”
The sound of Kelly holding back tears comes through the phone line, then he regains his composure.
“He cares more about everybody else,” Kelly continued. “Even out of the military, he’s working military hours.”
Kelly explained that, during the last ten years while his dad has spent a lot of time in hospitals dealing with his own health concerns, the Vietnam veteran visited countless hospitalized veterans and others.
“He’s supposed to be retired, but he’s not. I don’t think it’s in his DNA to do it,” Kelly said about his dad, 65 at the time of the interview.
Chief Stewart recently took on the task of serving as secretary of the Inverness, Fla.-based program, Operation Welcome Home, which welcomes every military service member returning home from a war zone with free dinner certificates, gift baskets and other expressions of appreciation for their sacrifices.
Such effort comes on the heels of personally delivering eulogies at hundreds of veterans’ funerals across the country, including many at Florida National Cemetery in nearby Bushnell.
“He’s so in tune with the military,” Kelly said about his dad before explaining how his dad’s behavior is not unique among veterans.
“I saw early in my career, the first time I went to Kosovo, I was getting 40-pound care packages I used to share with all the guys in my platoon. They were from old vets.
“Kosovo’s like one of those small wars that was going on that people don’t really recognize as a war. It was never classified as a war, but there were still things that we were doing,” he explained. “I remember getting a letter from a guy that was in the 1st Infantry Regiment in Vietnam, and he sent me what, at that time, I thought was some really off-the-wall stuff.
“He sent me some socks, gloves, a scarf, a bunch of candy canes, some Vaseline, and some shoe strings and some dental floss.
“It just shows you how ‘cherry’ — the word I would use — or young I was with war,” Kelly explained. “You feel like you’re talking with somebody who’s really been to war. The items that he sent me were for a reason.
“I remember reading through the letter that he sent to me,” he said before recounting some of what it contained:
“Listen. Even during the summer months when it rains a lot, your hands are gonna get cold while holding that cold weapon, so make sure you wear those gloves even though it’s raining out there ‘cause they’re wool gloves and, when (they’re) wet, they’re still warm.”
And he wrote about other things, Kelly said:
“Dental floss. Nothing like having a toothache when you’re on a patrol. That’ll take you out, so make sure you floss every day even if you can’t brush. The scarf, it’s the same way. Keep yourself warm. It’ll keep the mosquitoes off of you.”
“Candy canes are great for energy when you’re on a patrol. Just make sure you don’t leave the wrappers around, because the enemy will see those and find you.”
‘The Vaseline, you put on your face; it’ll keep the cold wind from blowing on your face and making you cold.”
“That was kind of a weird letter, but you totally get that this guy (understood)… and that’s what my dad does now,” Kelly said. “He’s that same person that cares about each and every troop that’s over there.”