WILLOW GROVE -- The Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) Willow Grove chapter has played a long-term role in supporting the community in which it serves.

Founded in 1976 by retired Navy Captain Nelson “Nick” Charles, who died in August at the age of 101, the chapter began encouraging and recognizing young Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) cadets at the high school and college levels. For the approximately past 20 years, the chapter has sponsored an MOAA ROTC/JROTC Medal Awards Program in various high schools and colleges throughout southeast Pennsylvania. Chapter members volunteer their time and talents to attend the various award ceremonies by presenting the MOAA Medals to outstanding cadets. 

The chapter spends $1,200 to $1,300 annually for up to 32 medals and cash scholarships awarded to deserving students. The ROTC/JROTC students not only receive the medals but also $100 per student as part of their total awards package.

In 2020, seven ROTC Medals/scholarship checks and 16 JROTC Medals were awarded to cadets who attended the high schools and colleges in the southeast Pennsylvania region. This year’s program was significantly abbreviated due to the severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Major Gary M. Portnoy, USAF, ret., Chairman, ROTC/JROTC Awards for the MOAA Willow Grove Chapter, said at a recent board meeting that “The chapter is proud to sponsor this vital program each year. The students involved represent the future of the US military as they develop a sense of belonging, discipline, and responsibility.”

In another community support program, MOAA WG began supporting Shamrock Reins located in Pipersville about five years ago. Past MOAA Chapter President Major Bill Luckenbill discovered the organization as vital to veterans’ health and healing and established MOAA WG financial support for it. Shamrock stands for Special Horses Assisting with Miracles & Recovery Offering Comfort & Kindness. It is a non-profit 503 (C3) organization directed by Janet Brennan who left the corporate world to start the facility in 2014. It provides equine assisted activities and therapies for veterans, active duty and reserve service members, First Responders, their families, and the families of fallen heroes.

Col. Paul Karwaski, US Army (Ret.), current president of MOAA WG, noted in a recent interview, “Considering the challenges of 2020, the Willow Grove chapter’s dedicated membership and strong commitment to serve military and veteran related organizations throughout southeastern Pennsylvania has not waned. This year we were able to contribute nearly $6,500 to several entities through donations and fund-raising activities. The groups we serve generally fall into three broad categories: those currently serving our country, veterans who have been wounded or injured or who have fallen on hard times, and students of college and high school ROTC programs. We recognize those students with scholarship checks, medals and certificates of achievement. They are either thinking about serving our country and want to find out more by joining a high school junior ROTC program, and those who are about to graduate from college to receive their commission through ROTC. Although MOAA is an officer related organization whose membership is limited to officers who have served in one of the eight armed or uniformed services, the beneficiaries of our efforts benefit both officer and enlisted personnel alike.”

First MOAA WG Chapter President Nelson R. “Nick” Charles, who retired with the rank of Captain in the United States Navy, passed away on Aug. 12, 2020 at the age of 101. Charles served in the Navy with a long career that began just before the American entry into World War II.

He was enrolled in flight school when the Japanese attacked the Pearl Harbor Naval Base in 1941, and spent most of the war flying combat missions in the South Pacific Theatre. Among his many decorations, Charles received the Silver Star, the Navy’s third highest personal award, for valor during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, where he helped to sink a Japanese cruiser. He flew the TBF Avenger, a torpedo-bomber, with multi-caliber machine guns that became known as the “world’s deadliest aircraft” during the war. Prior to the Avenger, Japan had air superiority in early stages of the war. The Avenger took that away.

Charles continued to serve during the Korean War as commanding officer of a carrier-based squadron known as “Hunter-Killers AF,” (initial stages of anti-submarine warfare), later as a test pilot at Johnsville Naval Air Development Center in Warminster, as squadron and Air Group Commander aboard the USS Wright based in Norfolk, VA, and finally as Commanding Officer of the Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Horsham. “He never thought that he would live long after four years in the South Pacific and in two wars,” his daughter Nancy Charles-Columbia said. “So, every day was a gift to him.”

He touched lives right and left. He was always available to people who had life’s problems, to give them a leg up on life. His attitude was, ‘How can I help you?” Nancy said that even towards the end of his life, her dad was an active leader and organizer, helping to arrange a Veteran’s Memorial at Brittany Pointe Estates, the retirement community in Lansdale where he and his wife spent their last 18 years together. “He wanted to make sure that veterans were not forgotten to honor people who served” she said. “He certainly did things the way he wanted to, that’s for sure,” said Jim Charles, Nelson’s son. “He always wanted to contribute. And he was a pretty dynamic individual. At home, he was a good dad, really put out the effort to take care of the family and the kids.”

Captain Gordon Bell, USCG-Ret. MOAA Willow Grove board member who knew “Nick” for over 15 years, indicated that Nick was a soft-spoken officer, subtle, but firm and determined in conversation to get his point across, get the job done. This was always reflected in people who talked about him. Nick was very proud of the Willow Grove MOAA chapter, to see it flourish in the community, and complimented Gordon to “keep up the good work with the newsletter “Stack Arms.” Gordon further noted that “Nick’s best accomplishment in retirement was bringing together his Veteran friends for the Veterans Memorial Wall at Brittany Pointe Estates in Lansdale.”

Upon his own full retirement, Charles remained active in his local community. He became Horsham Township Manager for four years, worked as Vice President of Marketing for Martin Associates in King of Prussia, an environmental engineering firm, was founding member of the Horsham Rotary International Club, subsequent president and its District Governor of Southeast Pennsylvania (SEPA), became a member of the Military Officers Association of America (became its 1st Chapter President in Willow Grove in 1976) and Navy League, and served as president of the board of governors for the Old York Road Country Club.

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