Ann Arbor Vietnam veteran John Kinzinger receives national recognition for volunteer work
File photo | Ann Arbor News
But in the years leading up to this Memorial Day, Kinzinger’s attitude has turned 180 degrees: Kinzinger, who served for a year in Vietnam as a radio operator, has dedicated the last two decades to serving veterans.
Earlier in the spring, the retired Ann Arbor Ford Motor Co. engineering supervisor won the national 2010 VA Voluntary Service Male Volunteer of the Year Award, recognizing his service to the VA and more than 1,000 hours of service given to veteran patients, organizing events such as the annual Christmas and Halloween bedside visits, the annual Car Show for Vets (now combined with a Welcome Home celebration for returning Iraq/Afghanistan veterans) and as one of the forces behind bringing a Vietnam Veterans Memorial to Washtenaw County.
There’s more: Kinzinger organizes a group that regularly sends care packages to U.S. military service members in Iraq and Afghanistan, scouring the community for gifts to send soldiers. He’s the VA voluntary service representative for the Vietnam Veterans of America and just wrapped up five years as commander of the Ann Arbor VFW.
He’s a force behind the tandem national nonprofits Operation Never Forgotten, which promotes public service announcements such as billboards that recognize members of the military and their issues, and Operation Sports, Afield and Stream, a wounded warrior benefit. He also goes into area classrooms to talk about his experiences in Vietnam.
But perhaps most telling is Kinzinger’s willingness to be part of the Veterans Honor Guard of Washtenaw County.
Last year, he attended 110 veteran funerals, where there’s a gun salute, taps is played and an American flag is folded. By early May, he’d already attended 51 funerals. Members of the honor guard, Kinzinger said, are a dedicated group.
“There’s no pay, there’s no gas money. It’s the love of honoring your fellow vet,” he said.
When there’s an unmet need, Kinzinger is the person to call, said Beverly Leneski, chief of volunteer service at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System.
File photo | Ann Arbor News
“He’s the go-to guy. He’s well respected and liked and organized. When we need a television or a golf cart for a program, John comes through with the fundraising,” she said. “He has a genuine love for veterans. And he takes pride in being a veteran. He believes it’s a group who deserves respect and honor and he feels it’s his mission.”
Leneski nominated Kinzinger for the award. But it wasn’t just because of his good deeds. He’s touched thousands of veterans.
“The impact, the scope of what he does, is broad. With all of his packages, all of his programs, his fundraising, he hasn’t helped just one vet. He’s helped a lot of vets,” Leneski said.
That includes the more than 2,500 care packages that have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past eight years, filled with snacks, toothbrushes, magazines and even canned ravioli — whatever Kinzinger can get people to donate. The servicemen and women appreciate the food, he said.
“There’s only so much you can do with sea rations. A can of pears of apricots can help,” he said.
But there’s also the message a package sends.
“It’s reassuring that someone back home cares about you. It’s a morale booster. I know what a care package can do,” Kinzinger said.
His mother would send him packages: “I’d get cans of bacon and fry it in a coffee can lid. It was so salty. But it beat sea rations,” he said.
It took Kinzinger almost 20 years to begin thinking about his time in Vietnam and what it meant to be a veteran, he said.
“By 1986, I started to feel, maybe being a Vietnam veteran wasn’t a bad thing," he said. "And other Vietnam veterans, like myself, began coming out of the closet. The idea of serving in Vietnam put you in a special group.”
Janet Miller is a freelance reporter for AnnArbor.com.