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Finley man reaches out to ailing Army vet

FINLEY -- If not for the immense kindness of a stranger, Craig Ludwig might be dead.

The 60-year-old Army veteran was homeless last year, his lifelong career wiped out by cancer. He'd been diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma, spinal cancer and prostate cancer.

A skin infection had made his legs and feet swell up so bad he could barely get his boots on.

Ludwig was standing outside the Tri-City Union Gospel Mission in mid-October 2009, when a couple of other homeless vets called him over.

He leaned into his walker and inched toward them.

The man standing with the two veterans would become his new best friend.

Moved to tears

Clarence Zimmer was saddened and outraged over what he saw on the evening news one night 14 months ago: Military veterans cued up at the Pasco homeless shelter, in need of food and clothing.

"I had tears going down my face," he said. "It torqued my jaw that (nobody) would step up and do something about this."

Zimmer wasn't driven to empathy by his own resumé. The 70-year-old never served in the military, though not for lack of trying.

As a young man, he went to every branch, wanting to enlist, he said. But a childhood accident had left one of his legs shorter than the other.

"I can't click my heels together," he said, chuckling. "They wouldn't take me."

Zimmer was driven to action by a lifelong tradition of helping. He's one of 13 kids, so being selfish was never an option. Growing up in farmland north of Spokane, he took food to seniors on cold days, he said.

And now it was time once again to be selfless.

"I told myself, 'Clarence, get over there and do what you gotta do,' " he said.

He rose from his couch to give a man a new start.

Death warmed over

Craig Ludwig had one of the most dangerous jobs in the military: He was special-ops, military intelligence in the 101st Airborne between 1967 and 1971, much of it in Vietnam.

"I went to northern Vietnam for information gathering," he said nonchalantly in his gravel voice. "Laos and Cambodia, too."

He was on his own in the jungle behind enemy lines.

"I've been shot, stabbed, blown out of a helicopter and had a boat sunk underneath me."

Ludwig, who said he had been sent on operations all over the world in his five years in the service, opted to stay on the move in civilian life. He drove trucks for 38 years, even after he was diagnosed with three kinds of terminal cancer in April 2009.

But an infection in his legs laid him up in Nashville, Tenn., in August of that year, and his truck was repossessed.

When the hospital was ready to release him, the staff offered to buy him a plane ticket. The Tacoma native asked to be flown to the Tri-Cities.

"I was born in Washington," he said. "I might as well die here."

His application for Social Security pending, he went to the Pasco mission.

It was hard being in constant pain, using a walker and fighting an infection while spending his days outside, waiting to get back inside the shelter at night.

"The way I was, the mission would have killed me," Ludwig said. "I was like death warmed over."

That's why the two veterans at the mission turned down Zimmer's offer of help and pointed to Ludwig as someone who needed the help more.

Roommates

Zimmer made Ludwig an offer he couldn't refuse: Stay at my two-bedroom house rent-free. Plus, he would make sure Ludwig would have food to eat until his government checks started to arrive.

Ludwig said he would try it for a week. He hadn't lived with a roommate since his Army days.

Zimmer had been living alone since his wife died a little more than two years ago.

But the two men became fast friends.

"We get along real good," Zimmer said. "He's a straight shooter. We can chew each other out and by the end of it, we call each other brother."

Ludwig is a special-ops man when he talks about pain, cancer or homelessness: Self-effacing and tough.

But his eyes turned watery when he talked about his friendship with Zimmer.

"We get along like brothers," he said, before clearing his throat.

Living at the Finley house has improved Ludwig's health some too. He went from walker to a cane to moving around without help in this past year.

"If I hadn't met Clarence, I'd probably be dead by now," Ludwig said.

Thankful

Zimmer was reluctant to talk about his helping a stranger.

"I'm just a simple guy who's retired from the Teamsters Union," he said. "I don't want no adulation. I have peace in my mind that I could help somebody else."

The man who had been at death's door many times in the service looks at his own fate calmly.

"If God lets me stick around, I'll keep aggravating people," Ludwig said with a laugh. "If he don't, I'll get to go home and be with him."

He suspects a higher power had something to do with bringing around his friend.

"I'm thankful to Clarence, of course," Ludwig said. "But I'm really thankful to God; I think he's the one that sent Clarence."

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