SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) -- For the Western Mass News 'Salute to Veterans' this month of July, we sit down with another Vietnam veteran.

Born and raised in Springfield, Thomas Belton is making a difference for other veterans in his own community.

In the corner, on the 1st floor of Springfield City Hall is a very important office.

"I love it because give and it will come back to you," says Thomas, a Vietnam War veteran. 

He's the Director of Veterans Services for the City of Springfield.

"It's a tremendous sense of satisfaction," he says. 

Thomas Belton has been helping local veterans since 2011.

"What we do is assist veterans that are needy. That are either homeless, are struggling because they're unemployed, have no form of income. There's a program called Chapter 115 that we manage here. It's not for the greedy, it's strictly for the needy," he tells us. 

From the moment you step into Thomas's office it's evident his military experience and this country are important to him.

"This is my original Marine Corps issue. As you can see, I have my Sergeant Chevron on my hat...These were made in Vietnam. They would make them and sell them to you. I bought them for about a dollar." 

But what Thomas has continued to focus on since the day he came back from Vietnam in 1969, is how all veterans are treated after combat.

"Vietnam veterans have changed the way Americans look at veterans because they really disliked Vietnam veterans and what they did to us, we vowed that we would make sure that never happened to any other groups of veterans. We blazed a trail so the country reveres veterans more so now," he notes.

Scrapbooks full of pictures, newspaper articles and awards tell Thomas' military story.

"What I attempted to do was to capture all my life as a Marine. In this album I captured the highlights of me being in Vietnam." 

After graduating from tech school in 1965 Thomas went to work for 'Pratt & Whitney' in East Hartford, Connecticut.

Because he worked for a defense company he had exemption from the military.

But he wanted to follow in his older brothers' footsteps.

"I didn't get drafted, I volunteered for the Marine Corps," Thomas explains.

In august of 1966 he went down to Paris Island.

Graduating in the top 10% of his class he was sent to the Naval Air Technical Training Command in Memphis Tennessee.

"In less than a year, from the time I went in, I had made E4 which was a Corporal. That was considered really good in the Marine Corps." 

In May of 1967 Thomas was assigned to El Truro, California. Then it was over to Vietnam.

The night he arrived in Da Nang they were under a rocket attack.

"I can distinctly remember when I saw Oliver Stone's movie "Platoon" and that door opened up, I can remember exactly how Vietnam smelt. It smelled just like that in real life," he tells us.  

In August of '68 Thomas was hit during another rocket attack...an injury that would lead to him receiving a Purple Heart.

"I was working on a plane and a rocket came in and exploded next to me and just threw me into the aircraft and got sort of messed up. Back then they didn't call them TBI. They called it Traumatic Brain Disease. I was almost like Forrest Gump."

Thomas' squadron, the VMFA 334th Fighting Falcons, were one of the first squadrons pulled during President Nixon's troop withdrawal.

When he returned home, he went back to work at Pratt & Whitney before going to college at STCC and getting his masters at AIC.

Thomas and other local Vietnam vets also founded the 'Winchester Square Vietnam Era Veterans of Greater Springfield.'

The group has been active for more than 50 years.

"Our mission, to improve the quality of life for men and women of the Vietnam era and provide support networks for their families. Our major focuses on Vietnam combat vets." 

And more important to Thomas than all of his awards and honors ...is the education he received.

He says that is what has gotten him through all his experiences in life.

"Goodnight, see you all later."

This month, we salute Thomas Belton and his service to our country during the Vietnam War and his work for the City of Springfield and veterans everywhere.

If you would like to nominate a local veteran, active or retired, who's story should be heard, you can e-mail: salute@westernmassnews.com

Copyright 2019 Western Mass News (Meredith Corporation).  All rights reserved.

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