For Tommy Clack, life is no accident. Life is a daily choice and a daily gift.
The passionate patriot and veteran's advocate retired in February after 18 years with the state Veterans Services Administration and 47 years in employment with the military, federal or state government.
Clack said he felt it was the right time.
"Everything I've had in my life has been prepping me (for the next thing)... every mission God put my path, I think there's been something there moving me forward."
Clack, a triple amputee Vietnam veteran, served as the Veterans Services director for a seven-county region including Newton, where he guided more than 10,000 veterans through the maze of red tape that is the Veteran's Administration. His passion in making sure veterans received the medical services and benefits they had earned, plus his non-stop speaking schedule, meant 100hour weeks were the norm for Clack.
"Everyone thinks veterans go to the VA to get free healthcare. Well nothing is free. They earned that healthcare," he said. "When your citizens put on that uniform and they sacrifice two years or twenty years of their life and their family is doing without them, by God you'd better be there for them because they're doing more than most Americans."
Despite his passion for veterans, the frustration of not being able to achieve what needed to be done was wearing on him. "You reach a point where you feel you've done all you can do and it's time to move on to the next challenge in life."
Clack's journey into advocating for veterans began after his combat injuries in 1969.
Even before then, life was no crystal stair for Clack. He and his four siblings grew up in Decatur. His father was a decorated World War II and Korean War veteran unable to work for years due to his injuries. "I've always been a fighter. Dad and Mom raised me to take responsibility for my own actions. My dad shaped me with that 4-inch leather belt on my gluteus maximus because I always pushed the envelope."
By the age of 8, Clack was working in the supermarket stocking shelves and by age 12 running his own lawn cutting business with nine "employees." He earned a track and field scholarship to the University of Houston but soon dropped out to enlist in the Army instead.
After four years, Clack reached the rank of Captain. During his second tour in Vietnam in May 1969 with the 2/27 Infantry-Wolfhounds of the 25th Division he was struck by a rocket propelled grenade near the Cambodian border.
He was mistaken for dead by medics and often placed in the ward of patients expected to die, but each time pulled through.
"People may find this hard to believe, but I am a big believer that what happened to me in Vietnam happened for a reason," Clack said. "I sincerely believe it was part of God's mission for me to end up a triple amputee. He gave me the choice to accept it or become non-existent."
He spent 22 months at the then-new Atlanta VA Hospital's Southeastern Center for Multiple Amputees and underwent 33surgeries.
His time at the VA was just the start of a long road. He was able to learned the ins and outs of the system, which prepared him to be able to get things done for veterans in the future.
He was hired by the Department of Defense to talk about the war and then by the VSA. He would often encounter anti-war attitudes at his speaking engagements as well as in the classes he took at Georgia State University, where he earned his degree in 1975. "I got started because I didn't like the way I was treated when I came home... It was just America at that time. I learned a long time ago you don't bring yourself down to the level of the people putting you down. You take the high road and you may turn people's thoughts around."
His work for veterans issues took him around the state, where he developed a network of contacts that would serve him throughout his life. He credits his service with the Jaycees, which he served as state President in 1977-1978, as crucial in opening doors for him.
He counts among members of the team that "make things happen" friends he developed during that time - a wide network that includes veterans in all walks of life, corporate executives, Pentagon officials, Congressmen, Senators, political staffers, grassroots organizers.
Long-time VSA Commissioner Pete Wheeler called Clack a "great American."
"He loves his country, loves the people he represents," said Wheeler. "We were sorry to see him retire because he did such a great job. I'm sure he will still be trying to help veterans get what they're entitled to, even though he's retired from the manager's job."
Charlie Harman, chief of staff for Sen. Saxby Chambliss, first worked with Clack more than two decades ago while Harman was working for then Sen. Sam Nunn.
Clack stood out because of his genuine warmth and sincerity, said Harman. "His outlook and love of country... And quite honestly, given his personal situation, his positive outlook on life."
"He is a hero of mine," said Harman, "A daily inspiration."
JoAnne Shirley, former chair of the board for the National League of POW/MIA Families for 15 years, counts Clack as one of her close friends.
"I can honestly say through the years, he's one of the most incredible people I've ever known," Shirley said. "I'd call him and I'd be so frustrated. He'd say ‘Joanne there are no obstacles, there are only solutions. Positive, always moving forward on whatever he was working on.'"
"He's one of the first people I would call if I got my brother Bobby back, to call and celebrate with me, because I could not have done it without him."
Clack has learned to accept the accolades that come his way and to funnel the attention in a useful way.
"To me, I get a lot of credit that I really don't deserve. But I've learned to accept that and understand this is an opportunity to educate and share with the public what reality is
He said, "Serving other people, to me, is the absolute greatest. It doesn't matter who gets the credit for what gets done, the idea is it gets done.
His next passion is spreading the word about the Walk of Heroes Veterans Memorial in Black Shoals Park in north Rockdale and building it up to its potential - a multi-million dollar project that could have a lasting impact for generations to come.
The Veterans Memorial Foundation is offering the perfect Father's Day and Memorial Day gift - a memorial paver (or engraved brick) at $100 for a 4"x8" and $200 for 8"x8" that can be paid in monthly installments. The pavers, carved with a loved one's name and message, will be placed along the 900-foot long Walk of Heroes, which has 180,000 pavers available. For more information, go to (770) 278-7000, (404) 401-7142 www.walkofheroes.org
Despite already tackling another project, he's now able to spend more time with family - his 26-year old son Adam, an Army Ranger just back from his ninth deployment, his 25-year-old daughter Erin and her husband DJ, and grandkids Noah, 3, and 8-month-old Naomi who call him "Poppa T." Clack, 64, is also able do the things he loves, including hunting, fishing, and reading, in addition to keeping up a full pace of speaking engagements, which he does without a fee.
"No matter how hard life gets for me, the expectation that Clack is going to be there means I've got to be there. People in my life help me get through life. Their expectations of me really do help me get through life. Even my enemies."
"I trust, when I'm gone, that I'm remembered for giving more than I've taken. That's what I want to be remembered for in life."