A Life of Service
Sam Pitts spent his life serving the nation in the Marines, and now spends every day serving other veterans
In 1973, while on a 14-month tour in Vietnam, Sam Pitts was promoted to major in the United States Marine Corps. A two-star general at the Marine Corps headquarters sent him a note congratulating him on being the third highest ranked black officer in the Marines. At the time, Pitts says, major was the cutoff rank for African-American officers.
Now 74 years old, Pitts has worked at VFW Post 1503 in Dale City for nearly 20 years as the "maintenance engineer."
Pitts arrives to work every day at 4 a.m. He likes to show up to get work done before anyone arrives at the post. His job includes everything from fixing the dishwasher to cleaning the ice machine to changing the lightbulbs—"There are a million lightbulbs in this place," he says.
His "desk," a folding table in the post's main hall where he sits to plan work projects, is extremely neat and organized.
Work is like a hobby to Pitts. He loves to work with his hands and is always staying active. "I plan on working till I can't work," he says.
Even after Pitts leaves work in the afternoon, he's likely to be out doing handyman repairs, either for pay, as volunteer work, or at home.
Pitts' life has revolved around two things: his family, and the Marine Corps.
He was born in Mayflower, AR, in 1936.
"In those days," he says, "you would have to be going to Mayflower to get there, because it wasn't on the way to any place."
Growing up, Pitts was very close with his younger brother, Elijah. His parents were cotton sharecroppers until his father died when Sam was 13 years old, making him the man of the house. Sam played football and ran track in high school and college, and Elijah followed in his footsteps at the same schools.
Eventually, Elijah surpassed Sam's athletic achievements, being drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1961. He played professional football for 11 years. "He played for quite a few championship teams," Pitts recalls proudly.
Elijah played for Vince Lombardi's 1967 team that won Super Bowl I, scoring two rushing touchdowns in the game. He was inducted into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame in 1979, and coached professionally until he died in 1998.
During his senior year of college, Sam Pitts married Lula, now his wife of 51 years. "That was one of the best decisions I ever made," he says. "She was a godsend."
Pitts lives to be challenged. When he was drafted into the military in his senior year of college, he chose the Marine Corps because he was impressed by the recruiter. "I was impressed with general appearance, the way they addressed me, and the whole smear," Pitts says. The Marines had the smallest office, underneath the stairs, while the Army and Navy had suites upstairs. Pitts liked the challenge the Marines presented.
At the time, he expected to serve the minimum four years and then have nothing more to do with the military. But when his enlistment was up in 1963, Pitts decided re-enlisting would be best for his family.
He had hoped to become a teacher, but the best offer he got was to teach science at a high school while also coaching football and track for a very small salary. Pitts re-enlisted in the Marine Corps and attended Officer Candidate School at Quantico to earn a commission.
As a commissioned officer, Pitts was committed to the military. He rose through the ranks of second lieutenant, first lieutenant, and captain, serving first in the infantry, then in various command and administrative support positions. He returned from his Vietnam tour in 1973 as a major, one of the highest ranked black officers at the time.
In 1981, Pitts retired from the military, partially to avoid more separation from his family. Staying in the service would have meant another unaccompanied tour in the West Pacific, and he decided not to leave his family for three more years.
After retiring from the military, Pitts returned to work for the Marine Corps as a civilian, becoming the director of training for the base exchange system. He worked there for 10 years, until a restructuring of the system meant that he could not advance any further.
"It wasn't fun anymore," he says.
He began working at the VFW post, where he had been a life member for several years. He loves the freedom he has to operate on his own, and enjoys the natural camaraderie of fellow veterans.
Looking back on his life, Pitts says he has no regrets. "If I had to do it all over again, with minor changes I'd do it all the same way."