ATASCADERO — When the Atascadero News last spoke to Charles “Chuck” Kania in September, he’d drawn our attention with the start of a support group for veterans in the North County.
Sponsored by Transitions Mental Health Association, with whom he became affiliated through the mental health struggles of a close family member, the project helps two groups close to his heart, those in need of support and veterans.
The only issue so far has been outreach,
What struck us in September was the backstory of Kania, who took the characteristic “aw shucks” attitude shared by many vets, that their story isn’t anything special. That’s coupled with a seemingly endless drive to be of service to the community he’s a part of, now serving as Jr. Vice Commander at the VFW, he’s involved with the local Cub and Boys Scout organizations as well. He’s currently organizing an event after Veterans Day, the Dec. 15, National Wreaths Across America Day, in which he hopes to get 700 wreaths sponsored to lay on service member’s graves at the Pine Mountain Cemetery.
Kania explains he started ramping up his level of community service shortly after moving his family to Atascadero to become maintenance supervisor at the Topaz Solar Farm.
At the time it was the largest facility of its kind anywhere in the world and presented a great opportunity, said the 20-year Navy veteran, to be part of the future in his second career. Kania spent large portions of his adult life around big machines that harnessed the raw power of fossil fuels. First recruited to be a part of the push toward a “Nuclear Navy,” he instead ended up overseeing natural gas-fueled engines as a Turbine Electrician GSE aboard ship, then in, civilian-life as a safety supervisor at a coal plant in Virginia. The biggest difference here, he said, was learning how 9 million solar panels interact to generate high voltage rather than burning fuel.
The move West was his idea after bouncing around traditional Naval port cities on the East Coast such as Charleston, Richmond, and Norfolk, while he was in the service, spending large portions of his time at “home” preparing on drills before going out for six-month cruises.
“It’s rough on a family,” he explained, one of the challenges not often understood by private citizens, that while a service member can be stationed stateside, “sometimes you’re there but you’re not really there.”
As he’s gotten older he notes that being present, and being of service to others has loomed larger in the mind.
“We have a lot of guys from different backgrounds at the VFW,” he said noting that while they’d like to get
While it may sound like Kania’s saying soldiers only want to talk together, that’s not what he means.
“It took some getting used to coming here that Veterans Day isn’t as big as it was where I come from,” he said, noting that there just isn't as much hardware and uniforms around the Central Coast. It doesn’t “click” with school children the way military service did for him growing up with it in the family, he added, “what I would really like is for Veterans Day to be recognized in the same way that Memorial Day is, a memorial day for the ones who survived.”
Part of that, he said, is to go talk to a veteran, “find out what they know.”
He shares a few anecdotes from his time in service that underscore the point, for instance, the sudden need for the Navy to rehire long since retired battleship crewmen during the first Persian Gulf War, to train new recruits being asked to use the mothballed equipment. In that case, the knowledge lost was technical, but there are cultural understandings to be gained as well.
With interesting timing considering a Russian professional exchange delegation recently visited Atascadero, he departed from the more dramatic “war stories” veterans are often asked to share and explained his own homestay trip to Russia in the 1990s where sailors stayed with host families of their counterparts.
“In the Russian Navy, I don’t know if it’s still this way, but at the time, everyone had to do two years of service, so everyone knew someone who’d gone through the same thing, but they also had a lot of manual labor,” unlike he added, the American approach of training a crew heavily on the intellectual underpinnings of their technical marvels of automation. “Their officers, on the other hand, knew how to do everything because they were the ones designing and working on systems.”
Aside from the drinking stories about homemade family-recipe hooch, one could also summarize that the sailors learned a lot by taking the time to understand, which is more to the point Kania wanted to express for Veterans Day.
For Veterans Day the VFW will be continuing the tradition of giving away “Buddy Poppies” with a nominal donation appreciated.
The Faces of Freedom Veterans Memorial Ceremony & BBQ hosted by the City is slated for Nov. 11, from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. with a tri-tip lunch running $10.
Kania himself can be reached about his community service projects at 202-367-2638.