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Local veteran developing tribute wall

Alex Stevenson~ 12/3/2014

ANTHEM – Eighty-one-year-old U.S. Army Veteran Virgil Fairbairn is on a mission at the Anthem Wal-mart, recognizing hundreds of former servicemen and women who come through the store.

Fairbairn first developed his idea of a tribute wall in a Montgomery, Illinois’ Wal-mart lobby in 2007, commemorating local veterans with around 600 of their pictures, accompanied by active service times, across the walls.

When Fairbairn moved to Arizona, he wanted to do the same – and has. The Anthem store’s tribute wall has hundreds of veterans already photographed, and is expanding into the lobby on the other side of the store.

“I got a compassion for it, because I was in there,” Fairbairn said of the project. “I had shots up to the wazoo to go to war, and I thought I was going to Vietnam. My knees were knocking – nobody wants to go there.”

Fairbairn has been with Wal-mart as a greeter since 1999. He was drafted into the military in 1956 – between the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and just months after he was married. He spent the duration of his time at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, but felt for those sent abroad.

“They went because of their country, this was their job, and I look at some of these veterans who come into Wal-mart and want them recognized,” Fairbairn said, “I thank God I wasn’t sent, because a lot of those guys who went to Vietnam didn’t come back or had a lot of issues when they came back – I feel for them.”

After Fairbairn’s stint in the Army, he worked at General Motors in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan for just over three decades – “Thirty years and three-tenths, I got the three tenths in there,” – as a salvage repairman before retirement.

“About six months into retirement, I started getting bored. I looked at my wife and asked what she wanted to do one day, and she just said that everyone was at work,” Fairbairn said. “So I went and got a job at Wal-mart.”

And how does Fairbairn get all of those pictures?

“I’ll ask someone if they are – or were – in the military when they come through the doors, and if they’ve got a picture of themselves in uniform,” Fairbairn said, “If they don’t I send them right to the photo counter and have one developed there.”

Fairbairn’s personable nature was witnessed first hand, and he’s certainly popular among store regulars – during an interview he was approached three times by regulars.

According to information from the company, Wal-mart announced its Welcome Home Commitment Initiative on Memorial Day last year, which “aims to hire 100,000 veterans and guarantees a Wal-mart job offer to any honorably discharged veteran within the first 12 months of separation from service.”

Fairbairn is a big fan of the initiative.

“Sam Walton (the company’s founder) would be proud we’re doing our boys good,” he said.

Marlee McCormick, an Anthem resident and Wal-mart shopper, also thinks the initiative is a good idea.

“I think it’s a great thing – after veterans have given up so much it’s like giving them the help they need to better support their families.”