MERCED — Not a day goes by that Atwater's Ernie Conner doesn't spend two or three hours advancing causes for veterans. On Friday, he will be given a prestigious award in Washington, D.C., from the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution for his dedication to veterans.
"What's so awesome is I'm not sure how many were competing for this award," Conner said. "It's difficult for me to get my head around it. All this praise and adulation is more than I deserve."
The 75-year-old Conner doesn't term his volunteer efforts sending packages to active-duty servicemen, writing letters, fund raising and helping with veterans' burial details a hobby. It's more of a calling.
At a lunch, formal reception and awards program Friday, he will receive the Outstanding Veteran Volunteer Award from the DAR at its 122nd Continental Congress National Defense Night in Constitution Hall. The slight, 142-pound Conner will be wearing the full dress uniform he first wore in 1955 as a new Air Force enlisted man.
Conner appreciates the love and concern shown for servicemen by the public. It wasn't always that way.
He served in the Air Force from 1955 to 1976, including two conflict deployments in 1970 and 1971 in Vietnam as the tailgunner on a B-52 Stratotanker. He said he flew 138 combat missions — fortunately, he said, never taking enemy fire.
Conner recalls when GIs came back from Vietnam they didn't receive a hero's welcome.
"It was awful," Conner said. "Servicemen wouldn't wear their uniforms back then."
Since Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait in 1991, there has been a sea change in the public's attitude toward veterans, Conner said.
"For the last 10 years there has been an outpouring of support and it is appreciated," Conner said. "Hardly a day goes by that I'm not thanked for my service. It's heartwarming. Several times I've been on an airplane when somebody in First Class changes seats with a guy in uniform. For an old soldier, that makes you feel good."
Conner is a life member of Atwater Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 9946 and Ballico American Legion Post No. 668. He is a member and chaplain of the Merced County VFW Honor Guard and helps with about 120 veterans' burial ceremonies each year.
Conner collected more than 22,000 pounds of donated almonds and 5,000 boxes of Girl Scout cookies for active military and has raised more than $30,000 for shipping costs.
Jim Kanabay, Merced County veterans service officer and the adjutant of the Ballico American Legion post, said he can't think of anybody more deserving in the county for this award.
"He's absolutely the No. 1 advocate for veterans," Kanabay said. "Most people don't know his name, but he has dedicated his life to helping veterans. This man has single-handedly touched the lives of veterans for the last 20 years."
Conner's wife of 56 years, JoAnn, said the honors for her husband are wonderful.
"He's worked for it very hard. He deserves it," she said.
Conner said he has absolutely no regrets about his 21 years of Air Force service.
"It was the greatest experience you could ever have gotten," Conner said. "It gave me good ethics and most of all gave me a wonderful education and a mate. Both have served me well in my 37 years of retirement."
Conner was stationed in Geneva, N.Y.; Biloxi, Miss.; West Germany; Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha, Neb.; Seymour Johnson AFB in Goldsboro, N.C.: and finally at Castle, where he made his home 41 years ago. He retired as a master sergeant.
Pattee Russell-Curry of Merced, a past regent of the Merced River DAR chapter that nominated Conner for state and federal honors, said Conner is very committed to his fellow veterans. She is state chairwoman of the DAR's Service for Veterans Committee but wasn't involved in the selection process for the national award.
Russell-Curry said Conner is the second Merced-area resident to receive the DAR award. The late Wayne Hein also was honored.
When he retired from the service, he spent 15 years in farm management in Cressey and then owned his own carpet cleaning company for nine years before fully retiring 13 years ago.
"I have no regrets," Conner said. "If I weren't so damned old I would still be doing it."
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.