Like the soldier he was in Vietnam, James Gilmer fought his way through a lung-scarring disease that robbed him of breath.
His last battle was at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, where, surrounded by family and his beloved service dog, Gilmer died Wednesday at age 70.
“He was ready to go, and he went very peacefully,” said his wife, Jan Gilmer, on Monday.
Family and friends are mourning Gilmer’s death, with a memorial service held Monday at Memorial Park North Riverside Chapel and a burial set for Tuesday at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton.
Gilmer, who served in the Army in Vietnam from 1966-67, “was a true advocate for veterans for over 40 years,” his obituary states.
He was a member of and helped lead several veterans organizations. He was involved with the local chapters of Disabled American Veterans and Vietnam Veterans of America, and he was commander at the Veterans of Foreign Wars for eight years.
Gilmer also served as a disabled veterans outreach program specialist with the Georgia Department of Labor for 20 years.
That’s where he and Jan met.
She jokes about how she went to the labor department looking for a part-time job and ended up with a future husband.
Jan Gilmer said his eyes “twinkled when he smiled.”
“He made me think of Santa Claus and a big teddy bear,” she said. “I was just smitten right from the start.”
Gilmer was one of 32 Gainesville residents who left to serve in Vietnam, literally boarding the bus on the same day in 1966.
Many of those veterans today meet for breakfast every Wednesday at a local Dairy Queen — including longtime friend Johnny Hulsey of Gainesville.
“He was a great man and a great veteran,” said Hulsey, who had known Gilmer since 1963, when both were in the ninth grade at East Hall High School.
He recalled his friend “as a giver.”
Gilmer also was a physically big guy, who, “in later years, grew a beard and played Santa Claus for children and at churches.
“He just loved to help people. And (it was) the same with the veterans — he was the right man for that job.”
James Gilmer also loved his miniature collie, Buddy, and wanted him at his bedside in his final days.
“When he drew his last breath and he was so peaceful, that dog got up on him and tapped his chest with his paw — like he always did when he was trying to get (Gilmer) to pay attention to him,” Jan Gilmer said.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in that room.”