Serving two Armies
Clifford “Ron” Lancaster, who held a Specialist Grade 4 rank, had been a soldier in Vietnam for 10 long months. But he was hopeful about his future after learning that he would soon be shipped home to be a 175–mm gun instructor at Fort Sill, Okla.
But just a few days later on Feb. 4, 1968, everything changed. It was during the Têt Offensive. Commenced on the day of Vietnam’s Têt holiday, it became one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War. Lancaster and his U.S. Army unit were on the infamous “Rockpile,” a 790–foot solitary rock outcropping near the then–Demilitarized Zone. His unit was providing support for the Marines when a 105–mm artillery shell hit his legs.
“We were receiving incoming rounds. We were being overrun,” Lancaster recalls. “I took a direct hit from a short–round 105. It hit the right leg and then hit the left leg and then went straight into the sand.
“Knowing the round was still live, no one came near me. But I never lost consciousness. I always carried bandages in my flight jacket. I applied my own tourniquets and dragged myself away from where I had been injured.”
Lancaster, who had previously called for a medevac helicopter to carry other injured personnel, soon found himself on that same chopper headed to a hospital 100 miles south in Da Nang.
“They were pretty sure that I would lose my right leg,” Lancaster says. “The left leg also had quite a bit of injury. After 13 months in the hospital, the left leg healed, but I lost the right leg from the knee down.”
“This little lady came from The Salvation Army and asked if there was anything she could do for me,” Lancaster says. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t have any money on me. All I have are my dog tags.’ She said, ‘We’re not asking for any money. Is there anything we can do for you?’ I remember the cap she wore. It was unique.”
Lancaster asked if there was any way he could make a phone call home to Dolly, his wife. The woman, who was an American, replied, “Well, of course.”
“She allowed me to call my wife and to tell her I was injured and that I would be coming home in four or five days,” Lancaster says.
Lancaster knew he was losing his leg, but during that first call, he spared Dolly the news. When the woman from The Salvation Army came around the next day, Lancaster asked if he could call Dolly again to tell her.
When the woman returned a third day, Lancaster called Dolly and his mother.
“This phone had a long cord and was on a carriage. She was taking it around,” Lancaster says. “She would wheel it from bed to bed and help whomever she could help. She was a nice lady and the fact that she came to me three days in a row was terrific.”
Lancaster, who earned two Purple Hearts for his injuries, spent the next 13 months in various Army hospitals in the United States.
“While I was in the hospital, I was trying to think how I could repay The Salvation Army for what they did for me,” he recalls.
Lancaster called The Salvation Army in Beacon, N.Y., where he lived.
“I told them, ‘I can’t walk, I can’t stand too much, but from the waist up, I’m fine.’ They asked how I was at math,” he says. “I started with counting kettles.”
For the next 25 years, Lancaster would frequently be in the office counting money, afternoons and nights. As he saw the giving increase, he would often get Dolly and other relatives to help.
“After doing kettles for 25 years, it was time to move on and let someone else take over,” he says.
Lancaster has been an advisory board member for 25 years. Dolly, his wife of 53 years, has often served with him. Major James C. Kisser Jr., the corps officer in Beacon, says Lancaster serves as the “unofficial historian” of the advisory board and has introduced Kisser to many civic and business leaders.
“It has been a real pleasure getting to know Ron Lancaster and working with him on the advisory board,” Kisser says. “His energy is inspiring and his love and respect for The Salvation Army are humbling.
“Ron and his wife, Dolly, really are a package deal, and it is like getting two advisory board members for the price of one. Over the years, they have stood at countless kettle stands, served as the drivers to get kettle workers in and out, and have recently given long hours to counting kettle collections.”
Lancaster’s connection with The Salvation Army actually goes back to his childhood. Born in July 1942, Lancaster’s father was shipped out for World War II later that month. At the time his mother lived in Ellenville, N.Y. There she received help from The Salvation Army and later, in Peekskill, N.Y., when the family moved.
‘I’m still here’
“I guess The Salvation Army is in my blood,” Lancaster says.
Lancaster has an interesting religious heritage. One of his grandmothers was Jewish, while the other was Southern Baptist. His wife is Roman Catholic, but he has found himself drawn to The Salvation Army, part of the Protestant holiness movement.
“For the last 20 years, if I was going to church, I came right here to the Beacon Corps,” Lancaster says.
“I’m still here, so God has been here with me. The doctors are surprised that I’ve been here this long.”
In the 1970s, Lancaster ran into cardiac problems when he was told he had the arteries of a 70–year–old man despite being 34. That’s when he underwent his first heart bypass surgery.
“One doctor told me, ‘You should really put all your important things in order.’ I’ve been told that a couple of times,” Lancaster says. “I’ve had a few heart attacks and a second bypass.”
In the moment
Lancaster has suffered from prostate cancer and a stroke, which he believes was due to his exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange while in Vietnam. During one ordeal, a priest read him his last rites.
Lancaster is also often in pain from the injury he suffered to his left leg. He has developed bursitis and arthritis, but because of the injury, doctors have recommended against him getting a knee replacement.
“They tell me if it hurts, to suck it up,” Lancaster says with a laugh.
Lancaster is the Salvation Army’s representative to the Castle Point VA Hospital near Beacon. He visits the men and volunteers.
Helping his brothers
“I have about 5,000 volunteer hours as a veteran with the VA,” Lancaster says. “I was doing a lot of volunteer work with spinal cord patients. I enjoy helping them.
“It was getting a little bit too hard because they are all my age and we started losing a lot of them. It felt like losing a brother, so I had to stop my volunteer work.”
While the VA may be in the headlines these days, Lancaster says he has no trouble receiving benefits. He often uses doctors outside the VA system because he found he often needed help on weekends and in emergencies.
“The VA is very good to me,” he says. “I have no problem getting benefits. They will give me anything I ask. I just call them or go [to Castle Point] and the trucks are here the next day.”
Still going strong
Even before Lancaster was drafted in 1967, he worked for Con Edison at the Indian Point Energy Center, a nuclear power plant in Buchanan, N.Y. After leaving the military, the VA helped Lancaster go to school to obtain his nuclear license. He completed a 21–year career, working his way up from a janitor to a control room operator.
“My last two years, they opened a purchasing department and promoted me to purchasing agent,” Lancaster says. “I knew a lot of merchants from my days growing up in the area.”
In 1984, Lancaster retired and increased his volunteer work at the Beacon Corps and at the VA. Today, he helps when he can, but standing for long periods is a problem,
due to his injuries.
Still, he soldiers on while displaying an infectious smile.
“I don’t know how much longer I can assist the corps and The Salvation Army, but I will certainly do it as long as I possibly can,” Lancaster says.
by Robert Mitchell