Wilda Vaughn, a well-traveled Navy veteran and the first female commander of Jack London Post 489 of the American Legion, in conversation with The Sun’s Anna Pier.
Tell me about “born to serve.”
I’m from the South. I’m born to serve my country, my community, my veterans. I’m from a military family. My father survived Omaha Beach, my brother and late husband were Army, and I was in the Navy for 22 years.
How did you come to join?
It’s a long story, starting with my first job in 1962 working as a secretary at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. The colonels I worked for encouraged me to travel and see the world as there was nothing for me in Belleville, Illinois, so I got a job with the Department of Defense in 1969 in Bangkok.
What adventures there?
I commandeered a C47 plane for a group of women, mostly from the Embassy, for a weekend up country to visit troops. After a year in Bangkok, I transferred up to Korat Air Force Base to work for the Base Commander. I would join him when he went to visit the local dignitaries – with a bottle of Scotch – and dined on monkey meat and baby birds.
Did you get to travel? They flew F4s and F105s out of there, and on the weekends, I always had my thumb out. I traveled to India where I saw the Taj Mahal, to Hong Kong, to Macau, to Okinawa where my brother was stationed with the Army, and the Philippines. I saw Bob Hope. I went to Laos and visited an opium den, saw jewelry stores where bars of gold were openly displayed, and actually smuggled gold bracelets out of Laos into Thailand for servicemen to give their wives.
Did you keep one? No, but I had the jeweler make me two gold wedding bands that each said “Health, Wealth, Love, Long Life.” I had them ready for when, In 1972, I fell in love with a fighter pilot and we returned to the US. In 1974, we moved to Northern California.
Talk about joining the Navy.
A friend had said to me, “Let’s join the military. We’ll have the commissary, we can fly space available.” I looked into it, and I could enter at a higher rank in the Navy than the Army. In the summer of ’76 I went to boot camp in Jacksonville, Florida for two weeks, in a program called APG (Advanced Pay Grade) to recruit women with all types of experience. I was an E-6, a Yeoman – that means paper pusher or administrative support. I enlisted in the Reserves, but I did have some active duty in Hawaii. I was in for a total of 22 years. I was mostly on Treasure Island, but I did have 17-day tours in Hawaii, Japan, and Australia. My last four years I went to Singapore, working with all sorts of people – Brits, Australians, Canadians. We worked hard, we played hard.
Your work after your discharge?
I started as a secretary for HUD/FHA (Housing and Urban Development/Federal Housing Authority). They offered a two-year appraiser training program, so I got my new career. I started appraising single family homes, new construction.
After I left HUD, I started work as an independent appraiser. My dad was a railroad engineer at nights and during the day, a builder. I feel like I joined the trade as an appraiser. I’m still appraising. I love it. I swap recipes with the clients, get plant cuttings from them. Lots of people refinance often, so I get to follow some families over the years.
Talk about your service to the community.
My father used to say, “The best place to find a helping hand is at the end of your arm.” I volunteered for 15 years driving for Meals on Wheels. At my church I started the ice cream social, and Women’s Evening Fellowship, and Kid Stay, where children who don’t have grandparents around stay after church to play with elderly people.
You’re settled in Sonoma now. Where did you grow up?
I was born in Columbia, SC, and raised on a farm in Tennessee until I was twelve, when we moved to a farm in Belleville, Illinois. Eventually, when I was working as an appraiser, I fell in love with Sonoma, 20 years before I moved here.
Tell me about your work as Commander of the local American Legion.
I’m the first female commander here. I run meetings, I cook, I serve, I clean up. But seriously, the guys help out too – with BBQ. My work is planning the monthly meeting agenda with the exec committee, planning fundraisers, attending community functions, giving out awards, recognizing local students who join the military, attending various veterans meetings, and visiting Vets in local retirement homes. I’m the Bad Ass Policewoman at the annual Car Show. And I recruit, recruit. I like to recruit at the G.I.Joe Lounge bar the VFW runs at the Vets every Friday at 5:30, for all vets and their families and guests.
What I love is being able to help our local/county veterans in need. We help with housing, medical issues including PTSD, and financial issues, for instance after the fires. We give scholarships at the high school, sponsor students to Boys and Girls State. We support the troops with letters and packages, and help setting up apartments or housing when they return.
With the VFW and American Vets, we’ll have the Christmas party for all local vets and their families again this year at the Vets 6 PM on December 8, with Santa Claus.
And Veterans Day? All the local Commanders will be there for Veterans Day on 11/11 at 11 AM. Memorial Day is for the fallen, and Veterans Day honors all who have served. The speaker is a local vet, Bob Rowntree, who’s 95 and a WWII survivor. See you there!