William E. “Dusty” Rhoads is a warrior whose service didn’t end with his discharge from the Air Force after an active duty career of 26 years.
To hundreds of North Idaho vets, he is “Mr. Veteran,” and as such he will be honored as Veteran of the Year during a ceremony at Hayden City Hall on Saturday.
That ceremony will follow a parade on Government Way in Hayden, the only Veterans Day parade in the Inland Northwest.
Rhoads, 69, is a Coeur d’Alene resident who retired as a master sergeant in 1988. His service career as an aircraft armorer and maintenance management noncommissioned officer took him to Libya, Thailand, Okinawa, Guam, Japan, Philippines, Korea, England and numerous bases in the United States.
It also included 26 months in Vietnam, a tour for which he volunteered “to be where the action was” and during which he was detailed to the Marine Corps for a time.
While stationed at Pleiku, Vietnam, with the 1st Air Commando Squadron, he came under Viet Cong mortar and rocket fire. He also flew missions on AC-47 gunships in support of Army Special Forces units. And while testing an aircraft-mounted 20-millimeter machine gun, it blew up, peppering his face with shrapnel.
One of his two daughters, Shirley Roxanne, now 43, was born in October 1966, and he saw her for the first time the following July.
During an assignment at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane in 1970 a container filled with machine gun ammunition he was loading into a B-52 bomber fell on him. He was encased in a body cast for six months and now walks with great difficulty, even with the aid of a cane.
He is considered by Veterans Affairs to be 100 percent disabled because of injuries to his spine plus asthma, emphysema, and “hips that are just plain wearing out.”
After receiving two Meritorious Service Medals and numerous other decorations from the Air Force, Rhoads and his wife, Audrey, retired to North Idaho following his discharge from the military. He then worked 13 years for the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department as a reserve deputy, dispatcher and animal control officer until physical problems dictated his retirement.
Despite his impairments, he is active in veteran organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Marine Corps League, Vietnam Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans and the Retired Enlisted Association, and has held local and state offices in most of those service organizations.
His Veteran of the Year award, however, isn’t simply because of his disability, his membership in those vet groups, or even the fact that he has been an officer in most of them.
It’s because, “He works darn hard to ensure the well-being of his fellow veterans,” according to Wayne Syth, chairman of Hayden’s Veterans’ Committee, and himself a former Veteran of the Year.
Rhoads’ activities include installing grab bars and building ramps at the homes of wheelchair-bound vets in partnership with the Elderhelp organization. He helps organize a yearly convoy of food items to the veterans’ home in Lewiston and runs barbecues and games for the home’s residents.
He also collects clothing, books and DVDs for the home and, through the various organizations to which he belongs, he has loaned and donated wheelchairs to veterans and provided Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to families of those in need.
He is a frequent volunteer at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Spokane where he visits with residents and organizes games.
Rhoads is a member of the Coeur d’Alene Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion burial detail, helping to render a last salute to those who have died after serving their country.
In addition to his service to his fellow veterans, Rhoads gives at home. His wife Audrey, 82, suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and Rhoads is her only caregiver.
So why does he volunteer to help veterans?
“To make up for what those of us who served in Korea and Vietnam missed – a nation that cared,” he says.