It is ironic that Napoleon Hodgers is heading up the Portland chapter of the National Association for Black Veterans, a nonprofit organization that is one of the most active veterans assistance organizations in the country.
A self-described "military brat," Hodgers swore as a child he would never enlist because of how many times his family moved when his father was in the U.S. Army. And as an African American who grew up in Detroit after his father got out of the military, he was repeatedly warned he would never see his 60th birthday, which happened this year.
"When I lived on the east side of Detroit, I was told I'd never live to be 20. Then when I did, I was told hypertension would kill me by the time I was 35. And then there was always something after that," a healthy-looking Hodgers said at the organization's downtown Portland offices.
Despite his misgivings, after graduating from high school, Hodgers enlisted in the Army Guard, then served 10 years in the U.S. Marines before completing his military service with the Air Force Reserves. He never saw combat, although he was ordered to be deployed to the first Gulf War, which ended while he was preparing to leave.
Hodgers said that one of his most moving experiences in the military happened when he was stationed in Japan, where he learned Japanese and taught English. There he visited the exhibit and museum at ground zero in Hiroshima, where the first atomic bomb was dropped by the U.S. military that ended WWII. Hodgers said that seeing the Japanese perspective of the bombing was deeply moving and made him view the Japanese people around him differently.
"I learned about the bombing in U.S. schools, but I didn't understand what the Japanese people had been through," said Hodgers, who lives with his wife in Beaverton.
As he was preparing to retire from the reserves in 1995, Hodgers was recruited by Intel, a company he did know in a state he had never considered visiting, Oregon. He accepted a paid trip to the company's first local plant in Aloha, and ended up working there and at the Ronler Acres plant in Hillsboro in a variety of positions through 2004.
"I was there as the company grew," Hodgers said.
Determined to advance his career, Hodgers obtained an MBA degree from American InterContinental University in Atlanta in 2008, just when the economy collapsed. Scrambling to support his family, he held numerous positions in the area over the years, including stints at Multnomah County and Portland Community College.
Then one day he wandered into the downtown NABVETS office. The organization originally was founded to help black Vietnam War veterans in the 1970s, and the Portland chapter was founded in 2006. There Hodgers learned he was eligible for benefits he was not aware of, sparking a desire to help other veterans like himself.
After volunteering for years with the organization, Hodgers submitted a grant application to Transition Projects to fund a position there to help homeless veterans quality for their benefits. When it was approved in January 2018, Hodgers became the first, and so far only, employee of the organization. He now spends most of his time helping veterans qualify for their benefits, and actively searching out homeless veterans to help in shelters and camps in the Portland area.
"Many veterans don't know the benefits they're entitled to and how to qualify for them, and that's what we try to help them with," said Hodgers, explaning that the organization helped veterans in the Portland area qualify for $20 million in benefits between 2006 and 2017.
The organization also reaches out to veterans at community events, regularly participating in the annual Veterans Day Parade in the Hollywood neighborhood, the Good 'n the Hood' community celebration in Northeast Portland, Black History Month events and other activities.
The Portland NABVETS chapter currently has 140 members, 60 of whom are considered active. Despite its name, Hodgers says the organization helps veterans of any race qualify for their benefits.
"We don't turn anyone away, and anyone can become a member, too," said Hodgers, who is also seeking operating funds so the organizations can hire more employees.
The National Association for Black Veterans (NABVETS) is a nationally certified Veterans Service Organization and a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs claims representative. It has offices in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, providing personal advocacy for veterans seeking claims against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The Portland chapter will host the organization's 50th Anniversary National Conference next August.
The Portland office is at 100 S.W. Main St., on the second floor. Outreach Director Napoleon Hodgers can be reached at 971-732-2883.
U.S. Army Guard, 1980-83; U.S. Marine Corps; 1984-94; U.S. Air Force Reserves, 1994-97
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.