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Veteran helps other veterans

By Ed Brock

It wasn't enough for Melvin Wilkerson that he should serve his country in the Vietnam War.

Now retired from both the military and his private sector career, the 65-year-old Riverdale man spends most of his days volunteering. He volunteers at the Atlanta Veterans Administration Medical Center in Decatur, or for the members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3650 in Riverdale, or most recently leading the Georgia Federal/Military Retiree Coalition Inc.

"I decided I wanted to do something to help veterans get their rights and benefits," Wilkerson said.

Born in Greenville, Fla., Wilkerson graduated from A&M University in Tallahassee in 1960 and went into the Army Signal Corps in 1961. During the Vietnam War Wilkerson was the project manager for engineering and installation of telecommunications systems for the Army's posts, camps and stations.

During his tour, Wilkerson said, he was exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange that he said caused him to develop diabetes and so he qualified for combat disability pay.

He left the Army in 1981 with the rank of lieutenant colonel and moved to the Atlanta area with his wife Katie Davis Wilkerson when he got a job as southern regional manager for Westinghouse Electric Corporation's Southeast Regional Communications Systems Division. When he retired from Westinghouse in 1996 he started his own telecommunications consulting company, Wilkerson Communications Associates, that he operated until 2001.

Some of the other organizations with which Wilkerson is currently involved include the Georgia Military Officers Association of America, the Georgia Military Retiree Council, Disabled American Veterans, the Army in Atlanta Museum Foundation and the American Association of Retired Persons.

He also serves as a veterans affairs advisor for U.S. Congresswoman Denise Magette, D-Georgia, and Congressman David Scott, D-Georgia.

He was elected as president of the Federal/Military Retiree Coalition, which he has been a member of since 2000, in early June. The coalition lobbies on the state and federal level in support of programs for the state's retirees.

"We need to move forward. We need to expand our membership so we'll have the proper funding to go out and do our programs," Wilkerson said.

Though not all are paying members of the coalition, Wilkerson said there are about 160,000 federal and military retirees in Georgia.

"We speak with a unified voice for both groups," Wilkerson said. "That gives us numbers when we go down to Washington, D.C. to speak."

Among the accomplishments of the coalition is the increase in income tax exemptions for the retirees. By 2008 they expect that exemption to be up to $35,000, Wilkerson said.

"What we have to decide now is whether we'll shoot for total exemption," Wilkerson said. "We'll decide that at our next meeting (in September)."

Anyone interested in joining the coalition can call the membership chairman, retired Army Reserve Lt. Col. Joe Staiano at (770) 621-3608 or e-mail him at atlcol@aol.com.

At VFW Post 3650, Post Commander Helen Denton recently nominated Wilkerson for the national VFW Volunteer of the Year Award, and Wilkerson won.

"I'll be presenting the certificate to him at the next meeting," Denton said.

Wilkerson is the post's service officer.

"He's so well trained in answering questions from my members who are having trouble at the hospital," Denton said.

And even when Wilkerson is volunteering at the hospital he has the VFW on his mind.

"He puts in his time, then he turns around and gives more hours for the VFW to get credit for and that helps me," Denton said. "I'm grooming him for commander."

Wilkerson's experience and connection at the VA Medical Center is invaluable to AARP members, said Helen Steele, president of the AARP Riverdale Chapter.

"He's a great human being," Steele said. "He's got a real good heart and hands that he reaches out to help everybody."

At his home in a room filled with displays of traditional Vietnamese swords and patriotic statuary, Wilkerson said he especially enjoys his visits with the World War II veterans at the VA hospital.

"They have some great stories," Wilkerson said.