Russell Carpenter’s life was a constant battle in some form or another, but he found peace through helping other veterans of the United States military like himself.
Carpenter died on Monday at his home in Soulsbyville after fighting throat cancer for the second time since 2005. He was 67.
He was perhaps best known in the community for founding the nonprofit organization Sonora Vets Helping Vets in 2013.
The organization operates a thrift store on Cuesta Court in East Sonora to raise money that helps veterans and active-duty military members with short-term needs, such as groceries or utility bills.
“That was his passion,” said his wife of 14 years, Bonnie Carpenter. “When vets are helping vets, they are like a band of brothers, and that helped him heal in a lot of ways.”
Russell Carpenter served in the U.S. Navy for four years, nearly two of which were in the Vietnam War from 1971 to 1973.
Bonnie Carpenter said her husband struggled throughout his life with severe post-traumatic stress disorder due what he saw in the war.
“He saw things so horrific that nobody should see,” she said. “It was hard for him to relate to everyday things.”
After returning from war, Russell Carpenter spent many years battling addiction.
Bonnie Carpenter said he was homeless for a time in Vallejo before moving to Tuolumne County to live with his brother, Kenneth Carpenter, which was the start of him turning his life around.
“He had a hard life for a long time,” she said.
The couple met in the early 2000s while attending the same church. Bonnie sang in the church’s band, while Russell played the drums.
Bonnie Carpenter said he began speaking more with his family again after marrying her in 2005 and had already stopped his previous lifestyle of drugs and alcohol.
“He just decided to turn a leaf and moved away from that,” she said. “Not too many people do that.”
Russell Carpenter was diagnosed with throat cancer for the first time in 2005, just five months after getting married.
He had never sought out veterans benefits until his cancer diagnosis. At the same time, he was diagnosed with severe PTSD and eventually classified as 100 percent disabled.
“He could be a very hard person to live with, and we went through a lot, but it was like God softened his heart to everyday things,” Bonnie Carpenter said of how his PTSD affected their relationship.
Russell Carpenter was later declared cancer-free after undergoing chemotherapy and surgeries that removed his voice box.
He could only speak using a microphone that he had to hold up to his throat, which Bonnie Carpenter said took him awhile to accept.
“When you go out in a public place, everyone is staring at you, little kids are scared of you, but he started handling it very well and would joke around with people,” she said. “He got through it. We got through it.”
Russell Carpenter believed that his cancer was the result of exposure to Agent Orange, a tactical herbicide used by the U.S. military to clear plants and trees in the Vietnam War.
He tried to make a couple of claims for disability benefits from Agent Orange exposure, but they were denied.
Bonnie Carpenter said she’s filed a posthumous claim in response to a new law that expanded disability benefits from Agent Orange exposure to Navy veterans who served in ships off the coast of Vietnam.
“His cancer was not a normal cancer, and the doctors recognized that,” she said. “It was a very aggressive cancer that probably should have took his life a long time ago, but he was a fighter. His fighting spirit was so amazing to me. I’ll never forget it.”
Russell Carpenter came up with the idea for Sonora Vets Helping Vets after first attempting to start a Christian motorcycle group, his wife said.
The organization’s thrift store opened in 2014 and began collecting donations that are either given to veterans, or sold to raise money for helping veterans with short-term needs.
“Vets Helping Vets became his life,” Bonnie Carpenter said. “He was working, things were happening, people were donating… He wanted it to get bigger because he wanted to help more vets.”
However, the organization almost shuttered after his second diagnosis for throat cancer in December 2017.
Bonnie Carpenter said they were about to close when Aaron Rasmussen, a U.S. Army veteran, stepped in to take over the operation.
“It was such a relief to us,” she said.
Rasmussen said he became aware of the organization after moving back to his hometown of Tuolumne in 2014 after a 13-year Army career, 11 months of which was served in the Iraq War.
The organization also helped Rasmussen connect with fellow veteran Jason Penrose, whom he now refers to as one of his best friends.
“For giving me another brother, that in itself has helped me so much,” Rasmussen said. “Russ helped me develop a relationship that is priceless to me now and helps me in my daily struggle.”
Rasmussen said he started working on Russell Carpenter’s funeral arrangements two or three weeks ago when it became clear that he wasn’t going to beat cancer this time.
Rasmussen is planning to work with Russell Carpenter’s niece, Teri Carpenter-Akbarut, of Long Beach, to finalize the arrangements over the weekend.
Russell Carpenter is also survived by his siblings Kenneth Carpenter, of Soulsbyville, Steve Carpenter, of San Diego, and Kathy Hagey, of Lake Isabella.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.