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Supporting the troops

Staff Photos: Erin Evans. "Papa" Joe Blasingame, left, has become a fixture at the Covington National Guard Armory, according to Sgt. Phillip Chappelear, who, along with other Guardsmen, family and friends, surprised Blasingame in April by presenting him with a Georgia Commendation Medal

Staff Photos: Erin Evans. "Papa" Joe Blasingame, left, has become a fixture at the Covington National Guard Armory, according to Sgt. Phillip Chappelear, who, along with other Guardsmen, family and friends, surprised Blasingame in April by presenting him with a Georgia Commendation Medal

COVINGTON -- "Papa" Joe Blasingame has spent the last few years doing everything he can to support soldiers. Whether it's welcoming home the wounded or those on leave, buying cleaning supplies for the local National Guard Armory or assisting the families left behind, no job is too small or too big for Blasingame to take on.

For his efforts, he was recently awarded the Georgia Commendation Medal for support of the soldiers and families of Bravo Company, 1-121 Infantry Battalion, 48th Infantry Brigade of the Georgia Army National Guard.

An accompanying certificate stated that his "dedication and commitment to their morale and welfare contributed greatly to successful military operations against terrorist aggression in the Republic of Afghanistan."

The recognition couldn't have come at a better time: Blasingame recently completed six weeks of radiation to treat a brain tumor. He was surprised at a ceremony held at the Covington National Guard Armory in April.

"I had no idea. I didn't think I would get a medal. Are you kidding me?" Blasingame said.

But Sgt. Phillip Chappelear said it was well-deserved. Chappelear, who was on rear detachment, said he could count on Blasingame to stop by the armory at least once a week while the soldiers were deployed.

"He's the kind of person that whatever we needed, he would get and if he couldn't get it, he'd put us in contact with somebody that could," Chappelear said.

Blasingame is a member of Warriors' Watch Riders, a troop support group of motorcyclists who often welcome soldiers home or escort families in funeral processions. Prior to that, he was part of the Patriot Guard Riders, serving to shield loved ones from protesters during military funerals.

But he goes above and beyond those volunteer efforts. During the last year's flooding, he worked to coordinate clean-up efforts at two soldiers' homes.

Sgt. Jose Resto was in Afghanistan when he got the call from his wife that his home was flooded.

"I was at a point of feeling helpless. I couldn't do anything. Papa Joe arrived and helped her out and cleaned everything out and helped her emotionally cope with everything, which is something I can't ever repay. The support they gave her was phenomenal. As far as I'm concerned, he is worth his weight in gold," Resto said.

For Blasingame, honoring soldiers and veterans is a way to serve his country: He missed serving in Vietnam due to a medical condition.

"I always felt I missed serving my country. I always felt like I had a duty to serve my country. Every American has that duty," Blasingame said. "Sgt. Chappelear said to me, 'There's different ways to serve. You can do something different.' I can't go back and fix Vietnam and the way the soldiers were treated when they came home, but I can make sure that won't happen again."

Blasingame jokes that he stalks veterans wherever he goes, rushing up to them in stores to thank them for their service. It's something more people could do, and on today, Armed Forces Day, Blasingame said he hopes more people will.

"If you meet a veteran in a grocery store, say thank you. That's all it takes," he said.

Blasingame longs for the days when Americans once again show their support to their defenders.

"During World War II, everybody did it. It needs to get back to that. That's the message we're trying to send ... We can't turn the tide overnight, but we can do little things and sooner or later America will get the message we need to support our troops," Blasingame said.

There are plenty of organizations that support troops, Blasingame said. He suggests visiting www.anysoldier.com or www.forgottensoldiers.org for more information.

"My point is get up and do something. It's so easy to do. Every little thing you do is making a difference," he said.