BY KEN LITTLE
Once a Seabee, always a Seabee.
That was the prevailing sentiment Saturday at Ma & Pa's Restaurant on Asheville Highway, where veterans of the U.S. Navy construction force from Greene County and the surrounding area held an inaugural meeting.
Many former Seabees have lived near one another for years and were not aware of their service connection.
Once gathered together, they had plenty to talk about.
"We're the closest-bonded people in the world," said Delbert Arrington, commander of the newly-formed "Island X-1 Greeneville" chapter of the Navy Seabee Veterans of America.
"It's a real brotherhood," added Glenn Coffey, who serves as group chaplain.
Many of those on hand Saturday were Seabees during the Vietnam War era.
Arrington started making phone calls about two years ago to try to organize a local Seabee veterans group.
Among its members is Joe Habberstad Sr., whom Arrington met in 1973 while both were stationed on an island in the Indian Ocean called Diego Garcia.
The Seabees were reunited through Habberstad's son, Joe Jr., another former Navy Seabee and a chapter member.
"I'm glad to see it formed," Joe Habberstad Sr. said.
Many Seabees had top-secret security clearances because of the projects they worked on, said Troy Branch, who attended Saturday's inaugural meeting.
"A Seabee gets out of the service [and] he's gone into hiding," Branch said. "You will never get a man to admit he's a Seabee."
Joining the Seabees group for their first meeting were U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, of Johnson City; and State Rep. David Hawk, R-5th, of Greeneville.
Hawk expressed gratitude to the Seabees for their service, as did Roe, a veteran who is one of the senior members of the U.S. House of Representatives' Veterans Affairs Committee.
Roe spoke of several trips to Afghanistan, and speaking with wounded soldiers. The retired Johnson City doctor said the quality of medical care that wounded soldiers receive is high, and he intends to keep it that way.
Roe said that, with the opening of an outpatient VA clinic in Sevier County, area veterans have treatment options that include not only the new clinic but also facilities in Bristol, Rogersville, Morristown and Knoxville.
He said he will continue to be an advocate for veterans.
"I intend to stay on that committee as long as I'm privileged to remain in Congress," he said.
About 20 people attended Saturday's meeting. The initial roster of the local Navy Seabee Veterans of America chapter numbers eight members. Two are former Marines who provided security or acted as military advisers to Seabees units.
Among the guests at Saturday's meeting was Donnie Douglas, southeast district commander of the veterans group.
Branch is vice commander of the Island X-1 Greeneville Seabees chapter. Joe Habberstad Jr. is secretary.
Members hope that, as news of the new Seabees veterans chapter spreads, others will join.
"We have numerous Seabees in the area," Joe Habberstad Sr. said.
The group will meet at 10 a.m. on the second Saturday of every month at Ma & Pa's Restaurant, 6853 Asheville Highway.
For more information, call Arrington at (423) 639-4270 or (423) 620-1658.
The national group's website is http://www.nsva.org