A Flagler grad like no other

By Annika Minton

Not many individuals can say they are both a Vietnam veteran and a Flagler College graduate. One person who can, however, is Michael Isam. 

Isam served in the United States Air Force from March 1966 to June 1973, reenlisting in 1969. In 2011, he graduated from Flagler College at the age of 64 with a Bachelor’s degree in communications and a minor in Journalism and Media Production. 

Much like younger generations of veterans today are suffering from health issues due to burn pits and toxin exposure while serving over the last couple decades, Vietnam veterans are still struggling with health conditions as a result of chemical exposure and proximity to extremely loud warfare noises during their service.

Although Isam was fortunate enough not to be critically disabled while serving, he does still experience the long-term effects of Vietnam warfare. 

Upon returning from Vietnam, Isam decided to give the whole college experience a try, but he figured out that path was not the best for him at that time, so he took a slightly different route and pursued a two-year degree in data processing. 

For the following 36 years, Isam worked in data processing and as a computer consultant. He retired when he was 62.

In his seven years serving in the United States Air Force, Isam experienced more than most people will in an entire lifetime.

“I got trained working on electronics, specifically navigation equipment, for anything and everything the Air Force flew,” Isam said.  

Similar to how burn pits have caused numerous cardiovascular issues, it is not uncommon to hear of many Vietnam veterans who developed diabetes as a result of exposure to Agent Orange while serving. Isam is no exception. Agent Orange is an herbicide used by the United States military for control of vegetation during the Vietnam War, which had negative impacts on veterans’ health when they returned home. Heart disease, forms of cancer, and Parkinson’s disease are some other common illnesses caused by Agent Orange.

Additionally, as a result of the high-pitched whine of the jet engines he worked closely with, Isam does not hear well out of his right ear. 

No matter what, though, Isam continues to stay extremely involved in his community and in several veterans groups. 

He serves as the current commander for Disabled American Veterans Chapter 6 in Florida. However, the Coronavirus restrictions have made it a little more difficult to keep in touch with his peers. 

“I’ve had to cancel all meetings until further notice,” Isam said, “but I keep everybody informed through email of what’s going on.” 

He has also been running a bulletin board for veterans since 2002. He posts five days a week and regularly receives information from veterans all over the country. They keep him up to date with events that are going on in their hometown, and he posts it to his bulletin for other veterans to see.

Michael Isam at a Veterans Day event at Francis Field in St. Augustine, Fl in 2011. (Photo courtesy of Michael Isam)

Isam is also a member of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter #1084 in St. Johns County, the aspiration of which is to give back to St. Johns County veterans and their community.

Additionally, Isam is a current member of – and photographer for – the Veterans Council of St. Johns County. In fact, he was the founding secretary back when it was first started in 2001. He enjoys photographing all the council events, especially ones at the National Cemetery. 

Photography has proven to be a relaxing creative outlet in Isam’s life. He even admits he feels much more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it, which explains why he has almost no pictures of himself when he was serving. 

“I was very camera shy,” Isam said.

Isam’s love for photography came from the beauty of sunrises. He used to work in Orlando, and every day he would make the drive from St. Augustine and fumble with his camera while driving trying to capture as many pictures as he could of the sunrise. He has kept this passion alive by doing freelance photojournalism work.  

Isam is also involved in Wreaths Across America, which was founded in 2007 to remember and honor the country’s fallen heroes. 

“The object is to place a wreath on every veteran grave in every national cemetery in the United States,” Isam said. 

To put into perspective the large number of wreaths that is, in St. Augustine alone, there are 2,700 graves in the National Cemetery. Wreaths Across America covers all graves across the United States. 

No matter what life throws his way, Michael Isam always finds something to smile about because he of all people would know that no one should take this life for granted.

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