NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. (WJBF) – You could say that a cat is at least partly responsible for James Busbee being nominated for WJBF’s Salute To Service.

“The first meeting I had with Mr. Busbee I saw his white cat and it caught my attention,” said Tim Bledsoe, Busbee’s neighbor. “One day I was slowing to see if I could see the cat and (Busbee) was out in the yard. I knew he was a veteran because I saw his picture on one of the banners that North Augusta puts up. With his love for cats, I sent him a gift card for $30. It wasn’t necessarily for the cats, but that’s the way he took it. He said they would enjoy the treats.”

Soon after, Busbee responded to Bledsoe’s gesture with a letter that read, in part, “your words and gift meant more than you will ever know. Thanks, your neighbor and friend James Busbee.”

With that exchange a friendship was born, and Bledsoe contacted WJBF to nominate Busbee for the “Salute To Service”.

“It made me feel good. I’ve never been awarded anything for my service,” Busbee said after receiving his award.

James Busbee, now 80, served 13 months in Vietnam. Like many Vietnam veterans, it has taken him a half century to get the recognition he deserves.

“During the two big wars they had parades for the GIs when they returned home,” Busbee said. “All we did was got spit on and called names.”

50 years after returning home, James Busbee still can’t talk about some of the things he saw during his tour.

“I told him I did want to thank him for his service,” Bledsoe said. “I realize that Vietnam was, you know, and I can understand why he doesn’t want to talk about it. But I was a kid and I remember a lot.”

“I remember when we came through Oakland coming home through customs, we were called all kinds of names, baby killers, anything you can imagine they called us,” Busbee recalled. “And we’d been through hell for over a year. So there was a lot of resentment, especially when you’re fighting a war you didn’t believe in.”

“I never tried to get out of the service, because I felt like I had an obligation,” he said. “But, to this day, I’ll always believe that was a political war more than any other.”

While time may not heal all wounds, it has eased the pain for more and more Vietnam veterans who are finally receiving appreciation for their sacrifice.

“Things have changed,” Busbee said. “It’s gotten better. It’s just what we had to do to get it that way.

“To me the best thing they did is when they did away with the draft system,” he said. “If someone wants to be in the military it should be on a volunteer basis. You get a better choice of people. I served with people in the army that never finished junior high school. Nowadays, you can get a good education. I have a brother-in-law that has about four different degrees in justice systems from the military. So, the military has improved quite a bit.”

These days James Busbee and his wife live a quiet life, providing food and shelter for any number of cats who call the Busbee house home. On his nomination form, Bledsoe made sure to point out Busbee’s “love of cats” as a testament to his character.

“I never liked cats until my wife and I started dating,” Busbee said, smiling. “She had this old inside, outside cat that I hated. (But then) I fell in love with him because I guess we did a little male bonding.”

Now, Busbee is a self-described “cat person”.

“I never thought I’d be a cat person because years ago I was a dog person. But our dogs passed about ten years ago and we’re too old for any more dogs so we have cats,” he joked.

“He’s an old softie. He’s an old softie,” Bledsoe said with a laugh.

Their shared love of cats led to their friendship – and a thank you long overdue.

“I did a lot of maturing while I was in the military,” Busbee said. “I grew up quite a bit and I’ll always be thankful for that. Everything has changed and it’s changed for the better as far as the military goes. I don’t think I would be the man I am now if it hadn’t been for the military.”

The WJBF Salute To Service airs on the third Wednesday of each month during NewsChannel 6 at 5:30. To nominate a local veteran, click here.