Dave Dellinger didn’t want to be just another bad statistic.
After leaving Delta Air Lines in 1996, he noticed a poll that said one-third of pilots died within one year of retirement. They went from being globetrotters to couch potatoes.
“I looked around and saw that our 80-year-old (former) pilots were all busy as hell,” said Dellinger, 78. “I said to myself, ‘That’s the way to go. Stay busy, and you’ve got something to do.’”
He has pretty much kept that vow since a heart attack forced him to retire from flying the skies.
Perhaps best known as one of the organizers of the American Legion Post 7’s annual Memorial Day parade, Dellinger also has led the veterans organization over the years and helped put on the post’s popular July Fourth fireworks shows. He also has devoted time and energy to the Vietnam Veterans of America.
And a decade ago, as local military units were being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, he helped start up Operation Patriot’s Call, an effort to help families of soldiers before, during and after overseas deployments.
“We owe these guys more than we can pay,” Dellinger said in a 2008 interview.
As a Navy veteran who served during the Vietnam War, he’s been naturally drawn to veteran causes. But it wasn’t always that way.
The Indiana native initially wasn’t interested in the military, studying pre-medicine at Indiana University. Overwhelmed at the time by his studies and working two jobs, Dellinger paid close attention when his best friend said he was joining the Navy.
His friend invited him to tag along, and Dellinger agreed.
After basic training, Dellinger went on to flight school in Pensacola, Fla., almost on a whim.
“I had never been in an airplane until they flew me to boot camp,” he said during an interview last week at the American Legion post on Riverside Drive in Gainesville. “It was completely off the chart for anything I had ever thought about.”
Dellinger served in the Navy from 1959 to 1967. During a 1964-65 tour in Vietnam, he dropped bombs and strafed targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a key route for North Vietnamese military forces.
The Vietnam War hadn’t quite escalated at that point, so he didn’t encounter much resistance in his missions.
“They weren’t ready for us and all that,” Dellinger said.
One of his hardest times was returning to the U.S.
“We were spat on, called baby killers and ... none of us had anything to do with anything military for 30-40 years,” said Dellinger, who would go on to start flying for Delta in 1967.
In 1996, after retiring, he saw a newspaper item about a Vietnam veterans group forming in Gainesville, where he has lived since 1981.
“I went, and that’s where it all started,” Dellinger said of his work with veterans.
Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 772 took off, but within its first six months, the vice president left for a motorcycle tour of the U.S.
“They made me vice president, and I’ve been vice president or president of (the chapter) or vice commander or commander of the legion since then,” Dellinger said.
Then came the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the deployments of the Gainesville-based Army National Guard unit, known as Charlie Company, and the U.S. Army Reserve 802nd Ordnance Co.
That’s when Dellinger and others formed Patriot’s call.
At a March 2011 homecoming celebration of the 802nd, Ron Kellner, another longtime active veteran and member of Patriot’s Call, said, “Never, ever will we let a soldier or his family go in need.”
“Hopefully, we don’t have any more sent anywhere, but you don’t know,” Dellinger said last week, reflecting on those days.
And concerning those past efforts, Dellinger said, “All this that I’ve done — it wasn’t just me. We all got together and decided this is a way we can support veterans.”
The Memorial Day parade, now a Gainesville tradition drawing large crowds, started 16 years ago under the leadership of Gene Shadburn. The former Post 7 American Legion commander died in 2007 while returning from the American Legion’s National Convention in Nevada.
“All of the sudden, there were no veterans” involved in organizing the parade, Dellinger said.
So, he and a fellow veteran, Judy Rimeik, decided they could “take over for the Legion until we could find somebody else,” Dellinger said.
Cheryl Vandiver, who worked on the parade from its beginnings and this year is retiring from the parade committee, said Dellinger “is one of the most dedicated people I’ve ever met, as far as his concerns for veterans, their welfare and being recognized.”
“And the things he takes on are not small — like the fireworks (show),” Vandiver said. “Just one of those would be all the regular person ... could do in a year’s time, but he keeps going.”
Dellinger said he doesn’t plan or want to slow down. He’s busy with family — including tracking his grandson’s college pursuits — but he remains committed to veterans.
“I’m going to keep it up until I can’t do it anymore,” Dellinger said. “I’ve got to have something to do. I can only mow the grass so many times.”