Virgil Greene was the last person they saw as they left for war and he was the first person they saw when they came home. He was an old soldier who cared enough to shake their hand and show them his gratitude.
No one can really say how many hands he shook at Freedom Hall, and none of them knew how painful it was for Greene to extend that rebuilt right hand.
Greene married Billy St. Clair's mother in 1958, and his stepson wanted to be sure people knew his stepfather's story. It is a story of service and a reminder of the power of a handshake.
Greene was drafted into the Army in 1950. He served 28 years, including three tours in Vietnam. His 38 awards and medals would fill the chest of several uniforms. He retired as a command sergeant major in 1979 and then spent 19 years as a civil service worker at Fort Benning.
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His memories of coming home from war are similar to others from the Vietnam generation.
Other than his family, no one was there to welcome him or shake his hand.
He raised his family in Phenix City, and his children and grandchildren could write books about this kind-hearted combat veteran who never quit serving.
As he watched young soldiers being deployed from Lawson Army Airfield, he remembered his own experiences and he wanted these men and women to know someone cared about the sacrifices they were making.
Working with the replacement center on post, Greene made sure departing soldiers were served a hot meal instead of a sterile MRE.
He also arranged an upgrade in dining facilities at Harmony Church along with a religious learning center.
But the gesture that touched more people than any other was his weekly handshakes.
"I'll be here until this whole thing's over," he promised. And the boots on the ground believed him for he was one of them.
The old sergeant shook every hand as if it was the first.
On the way out on Fridays he tried to put their minds at ease and as they walked on American soil again on a Sunday he thanked them for a job well done.
Virgil Greene died in April. He was 85.
He never talked about his own problems and only now does St. Clair share the pain Greene was in with every handshake.
His right hand was severely wounded by shrapnel in Vietnam and doctors had to wire it back together.
"With every handshake he had to have winced," St. Clair said.
Because he promised, he shook off the pain and kept coming until his own health failed.
And if he were here, Virgil Greene would deserve a final thank you and one last handshake.
-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at email@example.com