Ted Tufts gave two decades of service to his country, and now he’s helping veterans in need of health assistance, government benefits or simple camaraderie in their post-military careers.
The North Charleston resident serves as outgoing District 1 commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars-South Carolina; he’s also a lifetime member and past post commander for his local VFW facility, Post 3433 in the Summerville/Ladson area.
After his family, the group is Tufts’ top priority in life.
“A lot of people look at us as just an organization where you got old people sitting around drinking and smoking and telling war stories, and to some extent that’s true,” he said, “but we do a lot of work for veterans in hospitals. ...This post has been very outgoing when there’s a veteran in need.”
With a shrinking membership, not just locally, but across VFW posts state and nationwide, Tufts said he often fears for the future of the organization and the impact on younger veterans.
“They don’t want to sit around anymore; they’re a different breed; they’ve got young kids,” Tufts said. “If we don’t find some way to get the younger people in there and start building up a membership, then we’re going to die—that’s the bottom line.”
While Post 3433 maintains a roster of 830 members, Tufts said less than 100 are active.
And despite participating in more than 6,000 hours of flight missions around the globe, Tufts considered an award from the VFW the most prestigious honor he’s received connected to his military service. Last year marked an historic moment in his life, when he received the 2016-17 All-American award from the VFW national commander. Tufts was honored with it because of certain membership marks and programs he helped the 12 posts under his district achieve.
“Last year District 1 met its membership goals and highly exceeded them,” he said.
The district actually boasted being the second-highest membership in the nation for its division.
His wife Beth said she still remembered the “big smile on his face” when she watched him receive the award. Like her husband, she’s active in VFW affairs, currently
serving as District 1 auxiliary president for VFW-SC.
She laughed thinking back on how much her thinking shifted since the couple first joined the post and she said she would never take on such a high-involvement role; she wanted to simply support Tufts behind the scenes.
According to him, the auxiliary is the “backbone” of the VFW post.
Tufts and his wife have been in the Charleston area since 1976 when he first received the golden loadmaster wings on his U.S. Air Force uniform. The role m
eant flying as a crew member on C-141s, as part of the 21st Airlift Squadron, and utilizing mathematical calculations.
“Our job was to compute weight and balance on planes and load cargo and take care of passengers on missions,” he said.
Inspecting was a chief component of the position, including inspecting loads dropped “in a war-time situation.”
“That was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed that,” Tufts said. “Every time a heavy load equipment exited the airplane you just kind of did a little, ‘Yeah!’”
Tufts was also air-drop qualified, meaning he was allowed to send heavy equipment and paratroopers out of the plane during flights. The training is still fresh in his brain and even beneficial for everyday hobbies, like pulling up bushes in front of his house, he said with a chuckle.
For a period of 13 years Tufts also served in the aerial delivery support branch.
He said as a child there was never any question in his mind that he would one day roam the skies in defense of his country—his father a retired Air Force pilot.
“When I was little I used to watch him go to his Reserve meetings,” Tufts said.
While like his father he also liked planes, he never had a desire to fly.
Tufts enlisted after high school at age 19, and it was a decision he said his father was proud to watch him live out over the years.
“He was really happy about it,” Tufts said. “He was always ready to listen to where I’d been and what I’d done.”
Over the next two decades Tufts’ missions took him across several continents—mostly Africa but also South America and Europe. He stayed in downtown Tehran, Iran, when the Ayatollah was still in control and delivered dental supplies to Russia in an area he said the U.S. would most likely not be able to access today.
Despite some trying to call him part of the Vietnam War era, Tufts said he “said ‘I do’” to the military about a month after the conflict’s official ending. He said he did conduct flight missions overseas during Desert Storm and the Saharan conflict—though never once felt endangered. It was only during a heavy windstorm once and during his first flight alone as a loadmaster that he said he felt uneasy on the job.
“Probably the most nervous I was, the most scared I was, was the day I went on a mission and I was qualified...and I was by myself," Tufts said.
But he decided to start a new chapter during the ‘90s after he said he learned he would have to move from Charleston to a base in New Jersey.
“I did not want to retire,” he said. “I couldn’t stay here any longer; it was just the luck of the draw.”
He now works for the IT department at MUSC, where he’s been employed for years.
But Tufts still makes time to encourage active military service members and advise youth considering a similar career path.
“Advice I give every kid that I talk to is (to) enjoy what you’re doing and make the best of it; don’t look for the bad, look for the good, (and) always plan for your future,” Tufts said.
And he has no intention of stepping down from his current leadership roles. In June he’ll likely become the junior vice commander for VFW-SC; he said he’s currently the only person running for the position and wants to continue to fight in the political trenches.
“I’m really big on veterans benefits and making sure what we worked for in our whole career we want to keep,” Tufts said.