John Fales, tireless veterans advocate as Sgt. Shaft, dies at 78
John Fales, the colorful, combat-blinded Marine who for more than two decades penned The Washington Times’ Sgt. Shaft column helping military personnel and veterans everywhere, died Monday, Nov. 26, of congestive heart failure. He was 78.
Mr. Fales, who lost his sight fighting on the front lines in Vietnam, was a fixture on Capitol Hill for his advocacy work for those who wore the uniform in the decades following the war, meeting seven presidents along the way in his fight to improve the lives of veterans and creating programs to address the range of complex problems they face.
His crowning achievement, colleagues say, was cofounding Blinded American Veterans Foundation (www.bavf.org) in 1985 with two other veterans who had lost their sight in combat. BAVF, where Mr. Fales served as president, lobbied on behalf of veterans with sensory disabilities and became known as a national clearinghouse for research, rehabilitation and re-employment for veterans.
“All his life he was a profile in courage,” said former Secretary of Homeland Security and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Vietnam veteran and friend of Mr. Fales from the early 1980s.
“John understood the consequences of the warriors and the Vietnam veterans who bore the visible and invisible burdens of their service, and frankly, he saw how they were neglected not just in the public sphere, but how the government had defaulted on its commitment,” Mr. Ridge said. “To address these injustices, he was relentless.”
Delighting in “shaking up the democracy,” Mr. Fales lived by the motto, “If it helps one veteran, it’s effective.” He is personally credited with federal legislation that restored benefits to widowed veterans who remarry.
His hundreds of weekly Sgt. Shaft columns in The Times typically dealt with the minutiae of veterans’ lives, helping to speed along a disability payment, shining a spotlight on a new benefits program, clarifying rules on military burials. He cheered on those dedicated to helping veterans and held little back in criticizing those who did not.
“Here we’re just trying to struggle back, and we’re told that we’re gonna be at the back of the line?” Mr. Fales once said of vets who return home to find no assistance readjusting to civilian life.
Thomas W. Pauken, a longtime friend and former chairman of the Texas Republican Party, said Mr. Fales “had an uncanny ability to get things done.”
During the Reagan administration, Mr. Fales assisted Mr. Pauken, who worked in the Reagan White House, in establishing the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program to help vets who were unemployed, underemployed, or who had “lingering problems associated with their Vietnam experience.”
Mr. Fales also regularly worked with leading Democrats, including former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, enjoying St. Patrick’s Day festivities in the District of Columbia, Mr. Pauken recalled. He also had a knack for stopping those who tried to use veterans programs to advance personal agendas often in funny, cutting ways.
Born in New York in 1940, Mr. Fales had a reputation as a “hell-raiser,” joining the Marines after being kicked out of Catholic high school. He served in Lebanon and Vietnam from 1957-1963 before re-enlisting for a second tour of duty in Vietnam from 1966.
He was blinded during an ambush in Vietnam that year while serving as a Marine forward artillery spotter.
“My head should have been down, but it was up,” Mr. Fales said in a 2013 CBS News interview. “I’ve been very, very fortunate. It’s unbelievable. Who would have believed it? I sure as heck wouldn’t have.”
After a medical discharge, he returned to New York and earned degrees from St. John’s University and Hofstra University.
In 1982, he started the “Sgt. Shaft” column in Stars and Stripes newspaper as an outlet to help fellow veterans, with the column’s purpose embedded in its unusual name. “There was this old term we used in the military: ‘If you were being wronged, you were getting shafted,’” he once explained.
He revived the column in 1991 in The Washington Times, helping uncounted readers and tirelessly advocating for veterans issues before penning his final column for the newspaper in 2013.
A longtime member of the National Press Club and American Legion Post 20, Mr. Fales received scores of awards over the decades, including the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program’s President’s Award, the American Legion National Commander’s Public Relations Award, and the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation’s Bronze Medallion of the Legion of Honor. In June 2005, the Marine Corps honored him at a sunset parade at the Iwo Jima Memorial.
“I am really fortunate to have learned a lot over the years from my father,” his daughter, Denise Preskitt, recently wrote in a Veterans Day tribute. “For one, that being disabled doesn’t have to stop one from having a very full life and family.”
In addition to Ms. Preskitt, Mr. Fales is survived by his devoted wife of 40 years, Heea Vazirani-Fales; daughters Deepika Harris, Monika Vazirani, Jyotika Vazirani-Ali and husband Nizam; son Ashish Vazirani and wife Deborah; grandchildren Christine, Grant, Victor, Benjamin, Isabella and Tariq as well as his brother Frank Fales. Mr. Fales was predeceased by his daughter Reetika and grandson Jehan, as well as his siblings Bill, Barbara and Robert.
A reception in his honor will be held Saturday, Dec. 15 at the National Press Club from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. He will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery at a later date.