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Wheeler works to help generations of veterans

Pete Wheeler, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Veteran Services.

Pete Wheeler, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Veteran Services.

Pete Wheeler joined the Georgia Department of Veterans Service in 1949. So far he has served 14 terms as commissioner under 12 governors and shaken hands with every governor from Gov. Melvin Thompson through Nathan Deal. Former Gov. Roy Barnes considers him, "the ultimate Energizer Bunny."

A walk through his office in the James "Sloppy" Floyd Building across from the State Capitol is a walk through Georgia and American history. The walls of the reception area, his office, and two large conference rooms are papered with the photos of presidents, governors, football coaches, dedication ceremonies, decorations, awards, legendary military personnel, celebrated actors, and his lovely wife, Geraldine. Diplomas on the wall include three doctorate degrees in law.

Wheeler was attending the University of Georgia at the outbreak of World War II.

"I rode horses in the ROTC cavalry at UGA, but after I fell off a horse, I switched over to the infantry," he said.

Called up for active duty in 1943 after graduating from UGA, Wheeler was sent to Camp Roberts in California to train combat troops.

"Paul Tibbetts (the pilot of the Enola Gay) and President (Harry) Truman probably saved my life," he said. "If that atomic bomb hadn't been dropped, I'd been sent to the war in the Pacific."

After Japan surrendered, Wheeler continued to serve his country in the Georgia Army National Guard while still serving as commissioner of Veterans Service. He retired from the National Guard in July of 1978 as a brigadier general.

When Wheeler began his service as commissioner, the state still maintained one home for widows of Civil War soldiers, and veterans of the Spanish-American War were still drawing pensions.

"I've been around a few years," Wheeler said. "That's because I love what I'm doing, helping other people. My favorite hymn is 'Help Somebody Today, Somebody along Life's Way.' We all need to adhere to that philosophy."

Wheeler served as chairman of the advisory commission by presidential decree to guide the construction of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

"Tom Hanks, the actor, helped us a lot," Wheeler said. "He was there with us at the dedication. He's a heck of a nice guy."

Under Wheeler's tutelage, the Veterans Service built nursing homes, cemeteries and new hospitals. One of his proudest accomplishments was desegregating the nursing homes and hospitals. But his most rewarding accomplishment was the final construction of the veteran's cemetery in Milledgeville, where his wife Geraldine is buried.

Wheeler also redesigned the rectangular stained-glass windows in the cemetery chapel.

"I had them designed with pointed tops, like arrows pointing to heaven. That sort of tells you where you should be headed," he said.

A master of poker face humor, Wheeler credits his long life to his God and Coca-Cola. A six pack of Coca-Cola sits in a window of his office, circa 1896. Ask him what he loves most about Coca-Cola, he'll respond, "The dividends."

He claims knowledge of the secret formula.

"Their secret ingredient for Coca-Cola is holy water," he'll say; then ask, "Do you know how to make water holy?"

If you don't know, Wheeler will tell you, "You boil the hell out of it."

In 1966, Wheeler created the on-going Supermarket for Veterans Benefits. Other states have followed his lead. The "Supermarkets" are set up to help veterans understand and qualify for their benefits, plus 48 federal, state, and local agencies are present to help veterans find employment, receive out-patient health exams, blood-pressure tests, and so much more.

In 1968, he traveled to major American cities (on the weekends) to participate in hearings on VA hospitals, benefits, and services.

He attended the dedication of the Governor's Mansion as a proud citizen, with no official duties to perform. To Wheeler's surprise, then-Gov. Lester Maddox introduced him as the guest speaker.

"That was news to me. But I did OK, and the people seemed to enjoy my speech," Wheeler said. Asked what he talked about, he replied, "Veterans, I think."

Outside the James Floyd Building is the Pete Wheeler Plaza. As one may expect, it's dedicated to those who served their country and paid the ultimate price. The bronze memorials list the names of those lost from WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The Plaza may bear his name, but as always, it's about the veterans.

At the conclusion of the interview, Wheeler said, "Oh, before you leave would you like to see Adolph Hitler's head? It's in a storage room down the hall."

But that's another story.

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran's Story," a regular feature of the Citizen. Contact him at petemecca@gmail.com.