Just days before the Memorial Day weekend, Francis Turner headed to the local Golden Corral off Ga. 20 in Buford, where he has been a regular for nearly a decade.
The popular buffet has been a favorite of his, but that’s not why the World War II vet keeps coming.
Supporting Camp Corral, having the chance to pass out replicas of Old Glory, to teach children proper flag etiquette and share a story or two about his years serving in our country’s military, is always at the forefront of his mind.
“I love doing things for people that need help, especially children,” Turner said, squinting behind wire-rimmed glasses.
Normally, he’d be gearing up to raise badly needed funds for the camp, but at 96, Turner is slowing down. In addition to suffering from anxiety and mild post-traumatic stress disorder, he has had to give up driving and some of his social activities.
And so for his birthday last week, restaurant staff decided to do something special for him instead.
To his surprise, when he arrived, he was greeted by nearly 20 well-wishers who had gathered for a birthday celebration and announced plans to raise $9,600 in Turner’s honor to fill another Camp Corral cabin with deserving children.
Turner couldn’t believe it. Not a day goes by that he isn’t reminded that children are the forgotten victims of war.
“It’s not just the person in uniform who serves,” he said. “Their loved ones make sacrifices, too, and it’s the children who are often overlooked.”
Camp Corral, founded in 2011 by Golden Corral, is a nonprofit where children of wounded, injured, ill and fallen military heroes can experience a week of camp free of charge.
To date, more than 17,000 military kids from the ages of 8 to 15 have been able to attend the camp, including a session at Camp Twin Lakes, just an hour down the road from Turner’s home.
Because the camp is offered free, Camp Corral relies on charitable donations to grow and serve this often underserved population. Every year, Turner and members of his Disabled American Veterans chapter raise funds for the Just Be Kids campaign at their local Golden Corral restaurants, which gives back to Camp Corral.
“Every moment at camp is a gift for these kids, and Mr. Turner has played a huge role in making this experience possible,” Lisa Brown, chief development officer for Camp Corral, told the small crowd. “It is humbling to see a veteran, marked by battle himself, give so freely to the current generation of heroes, especially the littlest among them.”
As the son of a war vet who served with the 5th Regiment of the United States Marines, Turner has experienced war from both sides. He didn’t wait for a draft. He signed up for the Air Force, but high blood pressure disqualified him.
In 1942, he signed up for the army of U.S., also known as the Army Reserve, while in college. In 1943, he was called up and assigned to basic training at Fort Bragg, N.C., before being transferred to Clemson, S.C., and then the prestigious Lafayette College, one of 36 academic institutions selected to train engineering and aviation cadets by the War Department.
Turner was to spend the next three months there, but he was stricken with appendicitis and sent home on medical leave. After he returned to Lafayette College, the training program was shut down. All effort was directed at defeating Hitler.
Turner sailed to Scotland, where he joined the 395th Depot Company under Gen. George S. Patton before traveling to England and across Europe.
He was assigned to supply, so he didn’t see actual combat, but danger always lurked.
Like the time he was en route to an event in Germany when the driver of the 3/4-ton truck he was riding in made a U-turn at too high a speed and threw him head first through the windshield. He survived the crash, but the impact left him with a banged-up right knee and a brain injury that landed him in the hospital until he could read, write and think straight again.
He left the war limping from his knee injury, along with battle fatigue and mild schizophrenia that required shock treatments and hospitalization.
He would eventually return to civilian life and in 1946, soon after the war ended, resume work on his teaching certificate at Plattsburgh college on the GI Bill. In 1947, he asked Barbara Randall to be his wife, and they were married on June 30, 1948.
The two of them would spend the next 30 years or so teaching, raising their three sons, all born with Down syndrome, and, as time would allow, volunteering.
Barbara Turner died in 1987, leaving Turner to care for their two remaining sons.
He was virtually alone in 2000 when a friend and holistic nurse who’d become like an “adopted daughter” invited him to move with her to Georgia, where they would share a home. Today all three sons are gone, and he does not hear from any relatives.
He finds fulfillment in what he’s able to do to help children.
“Without children, we don’t have a country,” he said.