STAMFORD, Conn. -- Archie Elam of Stamford approaches his new role as the commander of Fairfield County’s branch of Connecticut Veterans of Foreign Wars with a sense of purpose and a soldier’s tenacity.
He also brings a heavy heart, one steeped in sadness since losing eight members of his unit during Desert Storm 25 years ago. Elam served as the head of operations for the U.S. Army’s 18th Airborne Corps 24th Infantry Division in the first war against Iraq. It was an organization of 36,000 troops with hundreds of tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery.
“I was responsible for all our units who were in contact with the enemy,’’ Elam said. “We were Gen. (Norman) Schwarzkopf’s left hook.” Elam’s troops penetrated enemy lines deeper than any other unit in U.S. history.
“You can feel the pain. You hate for it to happen. As an officer and a leader, you know you have to take care of your guys. Losing them hurts. But you also recognize, they and everybody else, that was there were trying to do things the country wanted us to do.”
The cost, unfortunately, was eight men to whom Elam had become close. He weeps for them as Memorial Day approaches and thinks about them every day.
“You can feel the pain,’’ said Elam, a 1976 graduate of West Point. “You hate for it to happen. As an officer and a leader, you know you have to take care of your guys. Losing them hurts. But you also recognize, they and everybody else, that was there were trying to do things the country wanted us to do.”
Elam’s emotional pain did not end there. He also told families their sons would not be coming home. “I’ve been the guy to knock on a door and tell them,’’ he said. “All they see is their home and their husband or brother or son is not going to be there. But they also know the enemy gets a vote. We stay with the families and do all we can to support them throughout their lives.”
After his military service, Elam enrolled at Duke University and secured a master’s degree in business administration and worked at GE Capital and United Technologies before going into management consulting. A member of Stamford’s Post 9617, he is the first member of the organization in its 69-year history to hold an officer’s position with the Connecticut Veterans of Foreign Wars. In his role as the new Fairfield County commander, he is responsible for 20 posts and nearly 2,500 veterans.
Most people know veterans from watching them march in various parades around the state. The VFW also awards $2.5 million a year to students for college scholarships, visits students at schools and supports veterans in countless ways.
One of Elam’s projects in Stamford included planting flags at the graves of fallen soldiers. Eagle Scouts Marco and Nick Critelli, along with their father, Andrew, identified gravesites of veterans at Woodland and St. John’s Cemeteries in Stamford.
Before Elam got involved, volunteers planted about 300 flags at gravesites of veterans, took several days and were doing so by memory. Elam organized the process, and volunteers now plant nearly 4,500 flags in a few hours.
“It’s driven by two things,’’ Elam said. “One, I consider myself a lucky veteran. Where I came from (in a rough section of Philadelphia) and where I went (West Point), I know I’m very fortunate. I also think about the guys in my unit that we lost in the Gulf War. We try to live our lives in a way that honors the sacrifice of our colleagues. We try to help others understand what veterans have done. We want to keep citizens connected to our collective history.”
Elam had a long and distinguished military career even before Desert Storm. One of his primary objectives these days is to support the many veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, physical and emotional issues, getting reintegrated into society and finding meaningful jobs. “I’ve found younger soldiers to be as patriotic as their grandparents from World War II,’’ Elam said.
His heart aches for all veterans, from the nearly extinct heroes of World War II to the brave soldiers who fought in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Grenada and more.
For Elam, Memorial Day is more than hot dogs, parades and bathing suit sales. It’s also about remembering the men and women who put their lives on the line for their country.
“I loved my military career,’’ Elam said. “I would do it all again tomorrow. I learned two languages and got a perspective of the country and its history. We have things here that we think are routine that don’t happen in the rest of the world. It made me appreciate things because I’ve seen what happens on the other side.”