NAUGATUCK — Robert “Grumpy” Froelick has served his country and his fellow veterans for more than 50 years.
For his service, Froelick, a 73-year-old Naugatuck native, will be inducted into the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame during a ceremony Dec. 7 at 5 p.m. at the Legislative Office Building atrium in Hartford.
After graduating from Naugatuck High School in 1964, Froelick joined the U.S. Air Force and became a parachute rigger, a position that required him to pack parachutes for the pilots and crew, pack the ejection seats, and pack the drag chutes that are used to slow an aircraft down when it lands.
“I worked on most every aircraft that was in the service while I was there,” Froelick said.
Froelick was deployed to Nha Trang Air Force Base in Nha Trang, Vietnam in 1967 during the Vietnam War. He served on the base during the Tet Offensive, a series of surprise attacks by the North Vietnamese.
In 1968, Froelick was transferred to Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier Parish, La. He left the Air Force in 1969 due to concerns about the continuing war.
“All I could think is if I reenlist I will be back in Vietnam for another tour,” Froelick said.
Like many veterans returning from the Vietnam War, Froelick didn’t receive a warm welcome home. Rather, he said, war protesters called him names and spit on him when he came home.
“As soon as we got our baggage we ran to the nearest bathroom, took off our uniforms and put on civilian clothes so they’d stop spitting on us,” Froelick said.
That experience made Froelick want to ensure no other veterans had to endure such a painful reception.
After leaving the Air Force, Froelick worked several jobs, including construction, driving a truck, and as a sanitation engineer on a garbage truck in Naugatuck for 14 years. But it’s Froelick’s work with Veterans of Foreign Wars — an organization he joined during his time in Vietnam — that has helped define his life since returning from the war.
Over the last five decades, Froelick has held a number of positions with the VFW, including state commander from 2013 to 2014, district commander, and post commander for Naugatuck VFW Post 1946. Today, he is the post commander for Prospect VFW Post 8075.
During his tenure as state commander, Froelick was named All American State Commander, an award that recognizes exceptional leadership, authentic accomplishment in membership growth and VFW core programs, according to the VFW.
It was a visit to a Veterans Affairs hospital in 1988 that ultimately changed his life.
Froelick recalled striking up conversations with some veterans at the hospital who told him they hadn’t seen or talked to their families in a while. Many of the veterans were lonely and didn’t have anyone to talk to other than the hospital staff, he said.
“I said not on my watch. I will visit you. I will come down and do things for you guys,” Froelick said.
He’s kept it up for 30 years.
“Just [two weeks ago] I cooked up a big pot of chili for vets in Newington. They had bingo and they had chili,” said Froelick, who estimated he’s volunteered over 17,000 hours at VA hospitals.
Froelick is not alone in his service. His wife Joyce has put in approximately 15,000 hours of service at VA hospitals, primarily collecting and sorting clothing.
Joyce Froelick said she nominated her husband for the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame because it’s not something he would do himself.
“Bob does not like to toot his own horn. I know how much he has given,” she said. “One vet was looking for a coat and boots, and there was nothing in the Newington VA Hospital. So, he went out and bought the vet the clothes.”
Froelick appreciates the honor, but said he doesn’t volunteer for the glory.
“To be honest with you, I do this for veterans. This medal, yes, is great. But I don’t do my volunteering to get a medal or citation. That’s not my thing,” Froelick said.
Even a serious illness couldn’t stop Froelick.
Froelick was diagnosed with cancer due to exposure from Agent Orange, an herbicide used liberally during the Vietnam War, and had half of a lung removed in 2013. Today, he is cancer free.
“It slowed me down, but it hasn’t stopped me. I won’t stop,” Froelick said.
Froelick said there may be a day when he gets too old to continue volunteering, but that day won’t come any time soon.
“Tomorrow we will get up at 5 a.m., get in our car and go up to the VA hospital and do what we need to do up there,” Froelick said.