Jim Pace comes from a military family. His father served in Vietnam. Both of his brothers served in Vietnam. Naturally, he served in Vietnam.
From the first time he read about a casualty in Vietnam, at age 12, he had no doubt he would join the armed forces.
Pace, now 62, joined the U.S. Army and was stationed near Phu Bai from September 1970 to September 1971.
After returning home to Everett, Wash., Pace enrolled at then-Western Washington College. He received a degree in recreation and park management and co-founded Nooksack Valley Building Center, where he worked for several years.
He discovered after awhile that his heart was in helping fellow veterans. At first, he was simply interested in honoring those who had served, but then he saw a need for assisting people with working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"I wanted to make sure the vets in Bellingham had all the same access to hospitals and facilities as vets in Seattle," Pace says.
The first step toward that goal was establishing the Bellingham Vet Center, where vets could go for counseling.
Pace signed on as a senior service officer with the Vietnam Veterans of America and started helping veterans file paperwork to receive their benefits. The Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs funded his office.
"Once the Vet Center was established, it was obvious that we would co-locate so we could provide services where veterans didn't have to go across town to get one or the other," he says.
The Vet Center and Pace's office moved into the same space in 1996. It is now located at 3800 Byron Ave.
Pace has lobbied for services both locally and statewide. In addition to helping veterans apply for benefits, Pace has helped create a state veterans fund sponsored by special license plates for veterans, and he has testified to various commissions and committees about the need for a medical center in the area.
After eight years of fighting for medical services, the VA opened a Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Mount Vernon in 2009.
Though Pace would like to have seen the clinic in Bellingham, he says his goal now is to help expand services at the center.
"The center is being overwhelmed with veterans," he says. "They're on one floor of a four-floor building, so I'd like to see them expand."
Washington has been recognized as one of the best states in the nation when it comes to providing services to veterans. Pace says the center's innovative outreach programs have helped the state and his organization become one of the leading groups for filing claims.
"We're reaching out to shelters, places that veterans are utilizing. We're not waiting for them to come here," he says. "We kind of know where they go, some of their habits, and we try to go to there."
Pace says Whatcom County has done a great job of providing funding for housing for homeless veterans and their spouses.
One example that stands out to Pace was the first claim filed by another service officer he trained. The officer had gone to the Lighthouse Mission and it was there she met a woman whose husband, a Vietnam vet, had died of a heart attack.
The woman filed for death benefits in 1991 but was denied. She struggled, and had to put her children in foster care and she lived without a home for a long time. The officer helped the woman write her story and send in her claim.
"Within the shortest time I've ever seen a thing get processed, the gal went to her bank because she was overdrawn, and she wanted to know how much she owed," Pace says. "They said, 'You're not overdrawn. You have $246,000 in your account.'"
The VA had awarded the woman her husband's death benefits.
"You can change a person's whole life, just by taking time, caring about them, and doing some paperwork," he says.
Not surprisingly, Pace's caring streak isn't anything new.
The holiday season can be especially hard for veterans stationed abroad, so there are oftentimes concerts and events held for the servicemen and women.
When he was stationed in Vietnam, Pace had the opportunity to go see Bob Hope perform for Christmas in 1970. Rather than go to the performance, he and his buddies gathered toys and presents and provided a holiday meal for children who had been orphaned in the city of Hue, the location of a large massacre in 1968.
"I told myself I could always go see Bob Hope, but I wouldn't always be able to spend Christmas with these orphans," he says. "That's one of my fondest memories. That was a very special Christmas."
Though Pace is happy to work for the Vet Center, he is focused on training the next generation of service officers to take over in the coming years.
"My plan is this: Once all our soldiers return home, then it's time for me to fade away."
The Bellingham Herald salutes Whatcom County people who help make our community a great place to live with our annual Ten Who Cared series. If you have a suggestion for someone we should salute next year, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.