Johnny T. "Tommy" Clack has military heritage in his blood. He's proud of being the eighth generation to serve and proud of his son for being the ninth. He wants to continue to recognize returning veterans, as well as those who came before.
"We go all the way back to founding of Savannah when Oglethorpe landed in Georgia," Clack says. "We started out as redcoats. By the second generation, we were on Washington's side and have been on the right side ever since. "
Clack dropped out of college to enlist in the Army in 1966. He served as an artillery officer in Vietnam, a forward observer assigned to an infantry unit to call in artillery during firefights.
"Artillery is known as the King of Battle," Clack muses. "It brings on massive destruction. I volunteered for artillery officer candidate school because I like to play with the biggest firecrackers. And I volunteered to go to Vietnam a few times before I finally got orders. I had to find out if I was half the man my dad was! He was a World War II and Korea veteran."
After being in country for eight months, on My 29, 1969 then-Captain Tommy Clack was seriously wounded on the Cambodian border. He suffered massive internal injuries, hearing loss, and lost three of his limbs. He would spend 22 months recovering at a VA medical facility in Atlanta, undergoing 33 operations. Since May 1969, he survived 65 surgeries.
"Every day you wake up is a great day to be alive," he says.
Clack recently sat with former Air Force combat photographer Stacy Pearsall as a part of Pearsall's Veterans Portrait Project (VPP). The VPP honors veterans from every conflict, hearing their stories, thanking them for their service and preserving their image for generations to come. In 2008, the first year of the VPP, she photographed over 100 veterans. Since then, she's made portraits of nearly 4000 more. See more of the VPP here.
A popular perception of the Vietnam War is that a vast majority of the men who fought there were draftees. In reality - a reality Tommy Clack wants to make sure everyone remembers – two-thirds of the troops sent to Vietnam were volunteers.
"I got spit on and called a baby killer all the time," he remembers. "When you got out, you dealt with that all the time from the community. I'm missing three limbs. I didn't have to explain to anyone how that happened. But I'm not afraid to stand up for myself or any other vet. I will not be intimidated by anyone who disagrees with me."
That dedication to supporting those like him drove much of Tommy Clack's life. He spent his post-war career as a Georgia state Veterans Service Officer. Now 68 years old, he spent the time in-between standing up for veterans and their families, working to get them the help they need and the benefits they deserve.
"You continue to be yourself," Clack says. "That's what God left me alive to do. The meaning of life is to get involved and be productive. That's what I do."
That is exactly what Clack does. He is now the President of the $32-million Walk of Heroes memorial in Rockdale County, Georgia.
"It's the most unique memorial ever built in America," he says. "It's an educational complex honoring everyone who served in the U.S. military – Active, Guard, or Reserve - from January 1, 1900 through today."
Clack was part of the original concept, after Georgia donated the land in 1998. They broke ground in 2000 but the memorial sat unfinished for years. In 2011, Captain Clack took over.
"I decided to finish this baby," he recalls. "When I became president in 2011, I put together a Board of Directors who aren't afraid of doing the hard work. This is all I do now. I work on this memorial 12-18 hours a day."
The memorial walkway is crossed by 71 marble bands ranging from 10 to 20 inches wide, engraved with the actions of America's military during that year. From the Boxer Rebellion to the Global War On Terrorism, each marble band represents a year where American Armed Forces were deployed overseas in armed conflicts.
"We have to ensure our vets from every era are remembered for what they did," Clack says. "Today's generation is no different, and we need to recognize that."
To learn more about preserving the images of American veterans visit Veterans Portrait Project and donate.
You can also learn more about the Walk of Heroes memorial or donate to its completion here.