Jim Cecil spent seven months in Vietnam, 10 months in the hospital after enemy fire pierced both his hips and nearly three decades serving fellow veterans after coming home.
Patients, co-workers and representatives from the mayor, the governor and a U.S. senator on Wednesday congratulated Cecil on his work counseling veterans since 1982. He retires at the end of this month.
During a surprise party quietly set up down the hall from Cecil's office at the Chattanooga Vet Center, about 25 people assembled. Covered submarine sandwiches, platters of vegetables, fruit and a cake awaited the lunch crowd.
After the initial surprise, Cecil, 62, stood a few feet from the podium as his fellow veteran counselor, Mike Bearden, and others praised his service.
"I don't know how many times I've heard veterans say 'Jim saved my life,'" Bearden said, halting his speech with a near-sob rasp, overwhelmed by the thought. "I'm proud to know this man. I hope I'm able to do as much as he's done in my life."
Bearden took over team leader duties at the Chattanooga Vet Center for Cecil when he arrived in 2007. Cecil stepped back to do more counseling before his retirement.
Fellow Vietnam veteran Bill Maynard, 64, took 20 years to meet Cecil but their connection ultimately changed his life.
"I just kept driving by and said, 'One day I'm going to go in and talk to them,'" Maynard recalled. "It came to a point where I just had to talk."
Both from Kentucky, Maynard and Cecil hit it off quickly after Maynard walked through the door seven years ago.
Maynard served as a U.S. Army infantryman in Vietnam the year before Cecil arrived. In the masses of green-uniformed soldiers entering and exiting the Southeast Asian country, they might have crossed paths. Decades later in Chattanooga, they made it official.
It took six months for Maynard to open up about his combat experiences, but he said Cecil's similar trials helped him more than he thinks anyone else could have.
"He knew exactly what I went through," Maynard said. "I'm one of those whose life was saved."
Maynard said he's happy for Cecil, but will miss their sessions. He'll still come to the center, he said, and meet with a new counselor after his buddy is gone. Cecil's last day is July 29.
"I dread that, I really do," Maynard said.
On Wednesday, Cecil stood near a table holding a medal from Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield and certificates from Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
Propped against the wall sat a desktop photo snapped a week ago of Cecil and his fellow counselors in front of the vet center. The shot resembles combat photos, friends grouped closely, staring at the camera with smiles, ready to do battle.
Outside the war, the battle for Cecil has been to help veterans, a fight that started shortly after he finished his graduate degree in social work and went to the Las Vegas Vet Center just as the program began in the early 1980s.
In those days, counselors were not allowed to take notes. Instead, there were pool tables, cots and "rap sessions" where mostly Vietnam veterans talked about their experiences.
The number of centers has grown from 40 to 300 nationwide. They now have much more demanding clinical standards while still maintaining an easy "walk-in, no hassle" demeanor that chooses storefronts over big government buildings.
Cecil has worked with veterans from World War II to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each has his own struggles but all can connect, he said.
Where World War II and Korean War veterans took the attitude of come home and "pretend nothing ever happened," Vietnam veterans saw their tour as something to get through and forget about.
The younger generation has better understanding, he thinks.
"In reality it doesn't work that way," he said. "I think veterans today are aware of that. This is going to have an impact on their lives."
As for retirement plans, he's got a pretty big one -- to write his life story.
It's not for publication, not for anyone other than his own family. He wants to tell his children and grandchildren about growing up in the 1950s and life since. In a way, those times will be lost, he said, just like the 1880s upbringing of his great-grandfather.