Cleveland native Steve Stewart has long been one of the strongest advocates in the community when it comes to veterans and veterans' organization.An enlistee in the U.S. Navy during the …
Cleveland native Steve Stewart has long been one of the strongest advocates in the community when it comes to veterans and veterans' organization.
An enlistee in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, Stewart has served as commander of Cleveland's Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2598 and American Legion Post 81, serving eight terms as the American Legion commander.
Stewart was also president of the Chattanooga Area Veterans Council, and on the National Committee of the American Legion.
He spent a lot of time over the years traveling and representing veterans in the local region at conferences and workshops on veteran issues.
More recently, for the past 20 years, Stewart has been chairman of the Cleveland/Bradley County Memorial Day and Veterans Day programs, working closely with Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland — who emceed the programs for 52 years before stepping down a year ago.
November's Veterans Day program was the final one for Stewart, as he has stepped down and is being replaced at the next vets' event (Memorial Day) by veteran volunteer Pedro Gonzales,
"I have enjoyed the veteran programs over the years, although it does get difficult at times," said Stewart in a recent interview.
He said he is proud of the fact he has been able to get some outstanding speakers for the Cleveland programs.
Stewart said the biggest downside has been that attendance and involvement from the community have declined slightly in recent years.
He pointed out that it is has become a selected crowd of veterans, their families, and officials of local vets organizations. He is hoping this trend can be reversed in the future.
Stewart grew up in Cleveland, and was born in the old Physicians and Surgeons (P&S) Hospital on Inman Street.
His mother Pearl was raised in Turtletown, and his father Lake in the Cog Hill community in McMinn County. His mother's first husband (Earl Jesse Freeman) was killed in World War II, along with two of his brothers.
She later married Lake Stewart and the couple had Steve and his sister, Sheila Shields, who now lives in Old Fort.
Steve Stewart attended Waterville Elementary for eight years, graduating from Bradley Central High School in 1966.
He began an almost half-century career with Cleveland Utilities, then the Cleveland Water System, just 10 days after leaving high school. An uncle told him of the employment opportunity, he filled out an application, and was hired as a meter reader.
After 1 1/2 years, Stewart enlisted in the U.S. Navy in November of 1967 — approximately 50 years ago.
He completed basic training in San Diego, was was assigned aboard an amphibious assault craft and made two trips to Vietnam where he assisted U.S. Marines up and down the Vietnam coast.
Stewart then volunteered for a return to Vietnam, was trained in California, and spent a year as an American adviser on a South Vietnamese-piloted River Patrol Boat.
"I was lucky to be assigned to a command boat, and we operated along the Great Canal on the Cambodian border," said Stewart. "We'd set up night ambushes, watching for Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troop movements along the border."
He added that each of the patrol boats had an American adviser.
"We were hit one night, when the Viet Cong tossed an explosive device on board," Stewart remembered. "It fell into the water and exploded. If it had remained on board, it would have been right over my bunk."
Stewart was discharged on June 14, 1971, and returned to Cleveland. He spent a little over 3 1/2 years in the Navy before getting an early discharge.
Returning to Cleveland, Stewart spent some time at Cleveland State Community College with plans to extend his education. He then decided to return to his former job at the city Water Department in 1972.
One of the first things he did when he returned home from military service was join Cleveland's VFW Post and the American Legion.
"I wasn't that involved in post activities for the first year or two," he said. His first involvement was at the VFW in 1974, when it was short of members for a board meeting and, simply because of his attendance, he was "drafted!" as he puts it. It ended up with him being nominated for an office.
"I didn't get elected," he remembered.
Later he was elected junior vice commander, and then became the VFW commander. He also served as adjutant and as a trustee.
Stewart then became very active in the American Legion's administration, elected as a VC for 1989-90. He became the most elected official at the local post, serving a total of eight terms as commander through 2001.
He was also the District 3 American Legion commander, when the district had a record number of more than 5,000 members.
Stewart was first named chairman of the two veterans' programs (Memorial Day and Veterans Day) in 1997, and has been celebrated for his service for 20 years.
He said it is a little sad to be stepping down. "But, I felt it was time to hand it over to someone else," he said.
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