MADISON — U.S. Army veteran Larry “Happy” Saunders said that he doesn’t give much thought to the work that he does in the community — he simply enjoys helping others.
“My wife asks me all the time where I’m going each day,” he said. “I don’t really plan anything and I never know until I get out there. Every day is like an adventure. You never know what you’ll get into until you get out there and talk to folks.”
Saunders, 70, looks like a man 25 years his junior. He has unusually large hands, a firm handshake and a warm smile. He doesn’t wear eye glasses, which is something he’s proud of. A stranger would never guess he’s seen the things he has, particularly during his service in the Vietnam War.
The 1966 Scott High School graduate said his nickname came during his days playing pickup basketball games as a kid and it just stuck. His military service came soon after.
“I moved to Cleveland out of high school and was going to join the Air Force,” he said. “I worked there a while and enrolled at Cleveland State University. Within two weeks I got a ‘greetings’ (draft letter) from the Army. It was 1969. My friends back here at home went first, almost a year earlier because I went through the draft board in Cleveland, which obviously was a larger city. They went to the smaller areas first.”
Saunders packed his bag and reported to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. His most vivid memory of basic training involved stiff winds.
“I mostly remember the wind being so strong at that time that it was kind of distracting,” he said. “I remember looking down at my long sleeves and seeing them moving in the wind. It was the summer and I remember my hands being real dark and the rest of me being pale.”
From there, he reported to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
“I remember there being 15 of us in our class studying fire control,” he added. “In that class, 14 of us went to Vietnam and one of us went to Germany.”
As a Fire Patrol Specialist, Saunders learned to replace the instruments on the M114 155 mm Howitzer. The weapon was used by the US Army during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
He also serviced the M551 “Sheridan” AR/AAV tanks, which was developed by the United States and named after General Philip Sheridan, from American Civil War fame.
Saunders doesn’t like talking about the details of his service, and he spoke carefully and respectfully about his experience in Cu Chi, which contain an immense network of connecting tunnels located in the Cu Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam.
“I saw some of the most beautiful white beaches you could ever imagine,” he said. “There were times that in Cu Chi, I saw things I’d like to forget, but I can’t. It makes you proud to be blessed and living where I live today. I think about how lucky I am. We were kids and it was a lot to take in.”
Saunders said one thing he learned from the Army was how to survive.
“I don’t need someone to take care of me,” he said. “I’m a problem solver and I know how to get things done because of the Army. That is the best thing I took away. I feel like I can survive just about anything life throws my way. It’s just a mindset that you carry with you forever, I suppose.”
He said he had a good friend from California with whom he didn’t communicate after his service ended in 1971, but he thinks of him from time to time.
“I didn’t keep up with him,” he said. “You go your separate ways and start a family and you just move on. I would go at that age and if I knew what I know today I’d still do it again (military service). I learned to be self-sufficient. I have no problem washing dishes, clothes, mopping floors and I can cook a little, all because of the Army. Not every man my age thinks that way, but that’s how I see it. My wife (Gail) will tell you that I can cook a little bit.”
Married nearly 50 years, the couple have a grown son and a daughter, producing five grandchildren.
Being a grandfather is something he cherishes. Recently, he built a makeshift volleyball net in his yard out of orange plastic fencing and stakes, then asked his 12-year old granddaughter to look up the dimensions of a court on the internet. He proceeded to teach her how to serve and she returned the favor with a phone call, expressing how much it had improved her game.
“She was proud and I’m proud of her,” he said. “Now she’s serving in junior varsity games and she had trouble with it before. I just adore all of those kids (grandchildren). They’ll keep you young if you just let them.”
Active in his church and his community, Saunders can be found doing yard work in the community for those who are sick and the elderly. He recently cleared a bank near Boone Memorial Hospital, cut trees that had fallen near roads and cleared brush that was blocking safe views for drivers in Madison.
An avid kayak enthusiast, Saunders removed a fallen tree that blocked kayakers from enjoying their Little Coal River experience.
“If you listen to and read God’s word, he tells us to help others and be selfless,” Saunders said. “I just try to live my life that way. I don’t look for anything in return, just a smile and a conversation does me just fine.”