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VA hospital’s ambassador honored for service to vets

Ted Siekerman, right, was recently honored with a volunteer award for clocking 40,000 volunteer hours at the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center. (Colin Mulvany)
Ted Siekerman, right, was recently honored with a volunteer award for clocking 40,000 volunteer hours at the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center. (Colin Mulvany)

Five days a week, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Ted Siekerman, 82, can be found at the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

From his post at the ambassador desk in the lobby, the Medical Lake resident welcomes visitors, helping them find their way around the sprawling campus. He greets returning patients and guests like old friends.

He’s been on the job for 29 years – but job is not an accurate description. Siekerman is a volunteer. In July, he received the Volunteer Award from the American Legion at the Washington Department Convention in Wenatchee.

Although Siekerman is just one of 400 volunteers at the VA, his statistics are impressive. He’s racked up more than 40,000 hours of service.

Siekerman is comfortable around veterans. He joined the Marines in 1948, shortly after graduating from Rogers High School.

“They sent me to Korea,” he said. “I was a ‘grunt.’ ”

He carries the marks of his service. While out on patrol, he and the men he was with were ambushed. “The Red Chinese got me,” he said.

Hit by mortar shrapnel, he yelled, “Let’s get out of here!”

The men split up and Siekerman went as far as he could. “I had six holes in my right arm – shrapnel hit my neck – my head.”

Bleeding heavily from his wounds, the young Marine eventually collapsed. “My uniform was saturated,” he said. “A navy corpsman found me. The next thing I knew, I woke up in a jeep, and then I blacked out. When I woke up again, I was in a hospital.”

Siekerman ended up spending a year in a naval hospital, before completing his enlistment at Camp Pendleton. He served just over four years in the Marines before returning to Spokane.

He and his wife, Lee, married in 1952, and went to work for what is now known as BNSF Railway. “I worked as a crane operator for 44 years,” he said.

The couple had five children, and when they were grown, Lee Siekerman began volunteering at the VA. But soon, she wanted her husband to join her. Although he was still working for the railroad he had Fridays off.

“My wife said, ‘You ought to come out here to the hospital. You’re getting close to retiring and you’d better find something to do.’ ” Siekerman smiled at the memory.

That was 40,379 volunteer hours ago.

He pointed to the hospital entrance. “They say there’s 900 people coming through that door, every day.”

And Siekerman is there to greet them. The smell of popcorn that wafts through the lobby is due to Siekerman and his wife.

“I was on the executive volunteer board and they’d talked about selling popcorn for awhile. I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

He and his wife bought the popcorn machine and the proceeds from the sale of the treats are used on campus. Siekerman said, “We have a barbecue at the VA nursing home once a month – we use the funds to buy supplies. We also were able to buy cellphones for the transport van drivers. We go through 75 pounds of popcorn a week.”

Lee Siekerman died suddenly in October. “She treated me like a king,” he said. “She’s still watching out for me. It really helped to be here after she passed away.”

Siekerman is clear about what keeps him coming back to the VA. “The best part is helping veterans,” he said. “There’s a lot of fun and satisfaction in that.”