Even after Dan Bujok retired from the Navy as a Torpedoman's Mate First Class in 2009, he still heard the calling to serve others.
As an active member and newly selected junior vice commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2669 in Port Orchard, Bujok has led many community service projects to help other veterans.
The post's efforts include helping veterans with any task they need, cleaning up trash along the highway, playing Bingo with Retsil Veterans Home residents every few weeks and erecting a memorial wall in downtown Port Orchard with bricks displaying the names of veterans.
Bujok, who is 45 years old, also often cooks meals for members at the post and designs almost all of the fliers for post events. He founded the Port Orchard post's chapter of the Young Guns Committee, an off-shoot group for post-Vietnam, boots-on-the ground combat veterans, with the goal of bringing in younger members to the post.
"It's just so great to be able to help out as many people as we help out," said Bujok.
And for his efforts, the Northwest Justice Project is recognizing Bujok as Kitsap's Veteran of the Year for his continuing dedication to helping other veterans.
"It’s really apparent that he cares about the less well-off veterans who are struggling," said Bryan Baker, NJP's director of development. "He’s well-respected and there’s a lot of gratitude for what he does in the community. We felt that warranted public recognition for what he does."
NJP is a publicly funded legal aid organization based out of Seattle with a program to provide assistance to low-income veterans. This year alone, the project has assisted more than 100 veterans in Kitsap County with cases related to housing, employment, healthcare, debt collection and benefits access.
Senior Vice Commander of Post 2669 Mike Licari said he couldn't think of anyone more deserving of the award than Bujok.
"It's wonderful to work with him," Licari said. "He's always smiling, on top of everything."
Bujok said he was honored to be the award's first recipient, but he felt any of his fellow post members were equally deserving of the honor.
"There's a lot of people here who put their heart, blood and tears into this place," Bujok said.
Bujok said he doesn't do community service for recognition, but as a way to genuinely help those in need.
For Bujok, one of the post's most memorable community service efforts came last year when members were able to assist a family in need during the holidays.
Every winter, the VFW volunteers raise money to provide holiday meals and presents for low-income veterans and their families. When families come to pick up Thanksgiving meals, the post collects Christmas present wishlists, Bujok said.
Last Christmas, the only item on one family's wish list was a set of new sheets for the bed their three sons shared. With three boys in one bed, their current set had quickly worn-out.
"We were like, ‘No. This can’t be. This is not cool,’" Bujok said. "So we probed a little bit and tried to find out exactly what the situation was."
The post members discovered the boy's mother had recently relocated to Bremerton from South Dakota and their father was a National Guardsman who was trying to find employment in the shipyard.
"Their money was stretched pretty thin," Bujok said. “It was probably one of the most tear-jerking stories we ever came across."
So on Christmas Eve, Bujok and other post members dressed up like Santa Claus and some elves, went over to the family's house to surprise them with not only the requested new sheets, but also with bunk beds, a pedestal bed and donated new mattresses.
"We were able to go over there and surprise the family, put everything together, and be like ‘Merry Christmas,'" Bujok said.
Bujok will be recognized at NJP's second annual Justice for Veterans fundraiser from 6 to 8 p.m. on Nov. 16 at the Kitsap Conference Center. Profits from the fundraiser will go toward the organization's legal assistance fund for low-income veterans in Kitsap County.
A career spanning the globe
Bujok was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, but grew up all over the country, including some years spent living above battleship row in Bremerton as a child.
"It was just so cool because as kids we were able to go over there and play around on the teak decks and just have fun," Bujok said.
Both Bujok's father and grandfather served in the Navy, which inspired him to join the service when he turned 17.
During his more than 20 year career with multiple combat deployments, Bujok served aboard the Knox-class frigate USS Barbey, the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf, the Spruance-class destroyer USS Leftwich, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Paul Hamilton and the nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington.
During his time on the Paul Hamilton, the destroyer was deployed to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Desert Fox.
"We lobbed a whole bunch of tomahawks right into Iraq," Bujok said. "Just the experience of that coming off of the destroyer is crazy. You hear one going off at the forward, everyone is at their battle stations, you hear on going off back-aft, and it’s just a constant volley going back and forth, back and forth."
Bujok estimated the crew fired off about 50 or 60 tomahawks, and the destroyer's radiomen were able to patch in BBC Radio for the crew to listen as missiles reached their targets.
"We could listen, about 45 minutes later as these things were coming into Baghdad and the surrounding areas, and be like ‘Wow, that was us,'" Bujok said.
Bujok met his wife through his career in the Navy. While he was stationed at Pearl Harbor in the mid-1990s, he met Kim, who also served in the Navy. They have been married for 18 years.
Bujok's shore assignments brought him to an estimated 45 out of 50 states, with posts ranging from recruiting from the very same office in Houston he enlisted in as a teenager to teaching at the torpedo schoolhouse in Keyport and later on in Everett.
After retiring from the Navy, Bujok earned an associate degree in technical arts in business management from Olympic College and a bachelor's degree in business management from Central Washington University.
Today, Bujok still works with torpedoes as a civilian quality assurance manager at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, which he said is "a great job."
“If we work over, we get paid overtime," Bujok said. "That’s one of the biggest differences. Not having to stand duty, or come in during the middle of the night."
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