A Personal Bond: The Veterans who Impacted My Life

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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Today is Veteran’s Day. I wrote a reflective piece on it two days ago and I want to follow up on it in a more personal manner in this post.

I am one of those unusual people for our day whose entire life has been somehow connected to life in the military. Thus I always become a bit more thoughtful and quite often emotional around Veterans Day and Memorial Day.  I’ve been in the military for over 34 years now.  I enlisted in the National Guard while in college and entered Army ROTC back on August 25th 1981.  Since then it has been to quote Jerry Garcia “a long strange trip.”  During that trip I learned a lot from the veterans who I am blessed to have encountered on the way, men and women who have touched my life in truly special ways.

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My Dad, Chief Petty Officer Carl Dundas aboard the USS Hancock in 1972

I come from a Navy family and was born in in a Navy hospital. Growing up in a Navy family in the 1960s and 1970s was a big adventure for me that never got old. I still remember looking forward to each new duty assignment with only the wonder that a child can have and to each new adventure that the next move would bring. We lived up and down the West Coast, Oakland, San Diego, Long Beach, Oak Harbor Washington, and finally Stockton California. My earliest memories of life come from our tour at Cubi Point Naval Air Station in Philippines, the sharply dressed Marine gate guards, the Navy officers in their resplendent white uniforms, the jungle that came up to our back yard, and the wild boars that would show up and tear up our garden, trees and lawn. I remember the Blue Angles flying directly over our house in Oak Harbor, those huge F4F Phantom jets roaring over me so low that every detail could be seen. I remember going on my dad’s last ship, the aircraft carrier USS Hancock and being amazed at how big and impressive everything on it was, the sights, sounds, and smells of the ship evoked a wonder that to this day I feel whenever I set foot about a ship. Of course compared to our modern carriers Hancock was old, and small but she was my dad’s ship and I was proud of him.

My dad retired from the Navy in 1974 as a Chief Petty Officer. While he was assigned to the Hancock was sent to manage aviation supplies at an emergency airstrip which was in the South Vietnamese city of An Loc when it was surrounded by the North Vietnamese for 80 days in 1972.  He didn’t talk about it much when he came back; in fact he came back different from the war.  He probably suffered from PTSD.  All the markers were there but we had no idea about it back then, after all he was in the Navy not the Army.  I had friends whose dad’s did not return from Vietnam and saw how Vietnam veterans were treated by the country as a whole including some members of the Greatest Generation.  They were not welcomed home and were treated often with scorn, even by veterans who had fought in the “real wars” of World War II and Korea.  Instead of being depicted an Americans doing their best in a war that few supported they were demonized in the media and in the entertainment industry for many years afterwards.

My dad never made a big deal out of his service but he inspired me to pursue a career in the military by being a man of honor and integrity.

Growing up then, we had a Navy family that surrounded us then remained part of my family’s life long after. My mom and dad remained in contact with friends that they served with or were stationed with, and now many of them are elderly and a good number have passed away.  Even so my mom, now a widow stays in regular contact with a number of her Navy wife “sisters.” There are not many of them left anymore, but mom tries to stay in touch with them. It was the early Navy family experience that shaped much of how I see the world and is a big reason as to why I place such great value on the contributions of veterans to our country and to me.

But there was another part of growing up in a military family in the 1960s, and that was the Vietnam War. I knew kids whose dads never came home from that war, and of course every night the evening news broadcast a “body count” segment which looked like a scoreboard showing how many Americans, South Vietnamese, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were killed, wounded or captured; but to me, at a very young age, those numbers on that “scoreboard” were flesh and blood human beings. This was my first experience of war.

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LCDR Breedlove and Senior Chief Ness

My second view of war came from the veterans of Vietnam who were my teachers in Navy Junior ROTC and the men that I served with in the National Guard and the Army.  Some of these men served as teachers and mentors.  LCDR Jim Breedlove and Senior Chief John Ness at the Edison High School Naval Junior ROTC program were the first who helped me along.  Both have passed away but I will never forget them.  Commander Breedlove was someone that I would see every time that I went home as an adult. His sudden death the week before I returned from Iraq shook me.  I have a post dedicated to them at this link.  (In Memorium: Chief John Ness and LCDR Jim Breedlove USN)

When I joined the California Army National Guard in 1981 Colonel Edgar Morrison was my first battalion commander.  He was the most highly decorated member of the California National Guard at that time and had served multiple tours in Vietnam.  He encouraged me as a young specialist and officer cadet and showed a tremendous amount of care for his soldiers.  Staff Sergeants Buff Rambo and Mickey Yarro taught me the ropes as a forward observer and shared many of their Vietnam experiences as we sat on lonely hillsides at Camp Roberts California calling in artillery fire on so many weekends and during annual training. Buff had been a Marine dog handler on the DMZ, and Mickey a Forward Observer and they were fascinating men, with so many stories and such great experience which they imparted to me.

The Senior NCOs that trained me while in the Army ROTC program at UCLA and Fort Lewis had a big impact. All were combat veterans that had served in Vietnam.  Sergeant First Class Harry Zilkan was my training NCO at the UCLA Army ROTC program.  He was a Special Forces medic with 7th Group in Vietnam.  In Vietnam he was wounded three times, and was awarded two Silver Star Medals. He still had part of a VC bayonet embedded in his foot at UCLA, a reminder of his time serving in Southeast Asia.  He received my first salute as a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant as well as a Silver Dollar.  I understand that after the Army he became a fire fighter.  He had a massive heart attack on the scene of a fire and died a few years later from it.  Sergeant Major John Butler was our senior enlisted adviser at UCLA, he served as a paratrooper and infantryman with the 173rd Airborne brigade in Vietnam.

Another fascinating character was Sergeant First Class Harry Ball was my drill sergeant at the ROTC pre-commissioning camp at Fort Lewis Washington in 1982. I kid you not, that was really his name, but this was probably one of the most important experiences of my life, which was incredibly difficult but most necessary. Sergeant First Class Ball was a veteran of the Special Forces and Rangers and served multiple tours in Vietnam and when he walked across the drill field his Smokey Bear hat reminded me of a shark fin cutting across the water, the man was scary as shit, but he had a heart of gold. Though he only had me for a summer he was quite influential in my life, tearing me apart and then building me back up.  He was my version of Drill Sergeant Foley in the classic movie An Officer and a Gentleman. Like Zack Mayo played by Richard Gere at the end of that movie I can only say: Drill Sergeant “I will never forget you.” Every time I see that movie

As I progressed through my Army career I encountered others of this generation who also impacted my life. First among them was First Sergeant Jim Koenig who had been a Ranger in the Mekong Delta.  I was the First Sergeant that I would measure all others by.  Once during an ARTEP we were aggressed and all of a sudden he was back in the Delta. This man cared so much for his young soldiers in the 557th Medical Company.   He did so much for them and I’m sure that those who served with him can attest to this as well as me. Jim had a brick on his desk so that when he got pissed he could chew on it.  He retired after he was selected to be a Command Sergeant Major because he valued his wife and family more than the promotion.  It hurt him to do this, but he put his family first.

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1985 with 2nd Platoon of 557th Medical Company (Ambulance) in Germany

Colonel Donald Johnson was the commander of the 68th Medical Group when I got to Germany in January 1984.  Colonel “J” as well all called him was one of the best leaders I have seen or served under in 34 years in the military.  He knew everything about everything and his knowledge forced us all to learn and be better officers and NCOs.  On an inspection visit you could always find him dressed in coveralls and underneath a truck verifying the maintenance done on it.  He served a number of Vietnam tours.  He died of Multiple Myeloma and is buried at Arlington.

Chaplain (LTC) Rich Whaley who had served as a company commander in Vietnam on more than one occasion saved my young ass at the Army Chaplain School.  No really he saved my career at least twice, and kept me out of big trouble on both occasions. Personally I don’t know too many senior chaplains who would put themselves on the line for a junior chaplain the way that Rich did for me. He remains a friend and is the Endorsing Agent for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As a Mormon he is one of the most “Christian” men that I have ever met.  I know some Christians who might have a hard time with that, but Rich demonstrated every trait of a Christian who loved God and his neighbor.

When I was the Installation Chaplain at Fort Indiantown Gap PA I was blessed to have some great veterans in my Chapel Parish.  Major General Frank Smoker flew 25 missions as a B-17 pilot over Germany during the height of the air war in Europe. He brought his wonderful wife Kate back from England with him and long after his active service was over he remained a vital part of the military community until his death in 2010.  Sergeant Henry Boyd was one of the 101st Airborne soldiers epitomized in Band of Brothers. He had a piece of shrapnel lodged next to his heart from the Battle of the Bulge until the day he died and was honored to conduct his funeral while stationed at Indiantown Gap. Colonel Walt Swank also served in Normandy.  Major Scotty Jenkes was an Air Force pilot in Vietnam flying close air support while Colonel Ray Hawthorne served several tours both in artillery units and as an adviser in 1972 and was with General Smoker a wonderful help to me as I applied to enter the Navy while CWO4 Charlie Kosko flew helicopters in Vietnam.  All these men made a deep impact on me and several contributed to my career in very tangible ways. Another man who I knew at Indiantown Gap was Sergeant Billy Ward who just passed away last week of a major heart attack. Billy was a bear of a man, but one of the kindest and gentlest men who I have ever known. Billy never knew a stranger and loved people no matter what their station in life, no matter what their beliefs, no matter what their lifestyle. I can honestly say that Billy didn’t have an enemy and though he was a lay preacher and was later ordained to the ministry, he just loved people and never judged anyone. He exemplified what it is to be a Christian. 

Al Waleed Iraq 2007

In 1999 I resigned my commission as an Army reserve Major to enter active duty in the Navy, with a reduction in rank. Since joining the Navy my life has continued to be impacted and influenced by other veterans. A good amount of my Navy career has been spent serving with Marine Corps. I served with some great Marines and Sailors in those units, including Lieutenant Colonel T D Anderson, and then Major, but now Brigadier General Dave Ottignon of the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Desroches of 1st Battalion 8th Marines, Colonel Lou Rachal of 3rd Battalion 8th Marines, and Colonel, now Major General Richard Lake of Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. My friends at Marine Security Forces Colonel Mike Paulovich and Sergeant Major Kim Davis mean more than almost any people in the world.  We traveled the globe together visiting our Marines.  Both of these men are heroes to me as well as friends, Colonel Paulovich was able to administer the oath of office to me when I was promoted to Commander.

I was blessed to become friends with many of the Marine Corps veterans of the Battle of Hue City including General Peter Pace, Barney Barnes, Tony “Limey” Cartilage, Sergeant Major Thomas. They and so many others have become close over the years, especially after I did my time in Iraq. They and all the Vietnam vets, including the guys from the Vietnam Veterans of America like Ray and John who manned the beer stand behind the plate at Harbor Park all mean a lot to me.

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Boarding Team of USS Hue City 2002

Finally there are my friends and brothers that I have served with at sea on USS HUE CITY during Operation Enduring Freedom and the advisers on the ground in Al Anbar mean more than anything to me. Perhaps the most important is my bodyguard, RP1 Nelson Lebron, who helped keep me safe and accompanied me all over the battlefield.  Nelson who has done Iraq three times, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Balkans is a hero.  Two others who matter a great deal to me from Iraq were Army Colonel David Abramowitz, Navy Captain (Chaplain) Mike Langston, and Father Jose Bautista-Rojas, a Navy Chaplain and Roman Catholic priest. Then there are the men and women of Navy EOD who I served with from 2006-2008 have paid dearly in combating IEDs and other explosive devices used against us in Iraq and Afghanistan are heroes too.  There is no routine mission for EOD technicians.  Then there are the friends that I serve with in Navy Medicine, medical professionals who care for our Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen, family members and veterans at home and in the thick of the fighting in Afghanistan.

There are many from my time in Navy Medicine who have meant so much to me. Chaplain Jeff Seiler, an Episcopal Priest at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth and Father Fred Elkin, a retired Navy Chaplain who served there helped keep me together during the darkest time of my life after Iraq, as did many of the physicians and nurses that I worked with there, and many of them were not Christians, but they helped and cared for me. That continued at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune, where I served as Director of Pastoral Care. At Lejeune I was fortunate to serve with Duke Quarles, a civilian pastoral counselor and retired Navy Chaplain. Duke was a rock for me there, as was Command Master Chief Ed Marino, one of the most spiritual and kind people that I know.

I now serve in a wonderful place, the Joint Forces Staff College. I am surrounded by great people here, from all the services of our armed forces, active duty and retired. I get to do wonderful things, and despite having gone through absolute hell dealing with the military mental health system this year, these folks have stood by me, especially Commander Lisa Rose, our former staff nurse who retired last year. Lisa is a highly skilled nurse and a courageous woman. For eighteen years of her career she served always wondering if someone was going to try to persecute, prosecute or try to run her out the Navy because she is a lesbian. For years she could not take her spouse to official functions, she could not even take a chance on being seen in public by someone with her spouse, even under “don’t ask don’t tell.” She was finally able to do that, but truthfully I cannot imagine what it would be like to want to serve your country, your shipmates and your God, while always knowing that anyone could end that simply because they didn’t approve of who you loved. I am glad that Lisa and my other gay and lesbian friends in the military are now able to openly serve.

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Me with RP1 Nelson Lebron just prior to leaving Iraq

There are others who I have served alongside who have died while in the service of the country, or after their service had ended. Some, like Staff Sergeant Ergin Osman, who I served with at 3rd Battalion 8th Marines, were killed in Afghanistan, others like Commander Marsha Hanley, a nurse I served with in the ICU at Portsmouth, who was one of the people who helped hold me together when I was so fragile; she died of complications of chemotherapy treatment at far too young age. Damage Control Specialist 2nd Class Ray Krolikowski, who I served with aboard USS Hue City died just over a year ago, eleven years after suffering an injury that left him a quadriplegic in 2003. Then there those who died by their own hand, having never recovered from war. Captain Tom Sitsch who was my last Commodore at EOD Group Two, and Father Dennis Rocheford committed suicide after being tormented by the demons of PTSD and TBI. Both men were real heroes. I could mention so many more, but will end there because I am getting a bit emotional.

There is a closing thought from the television mini-series Band of Brothers which kind of sums up how I feel. The American troops who have fought so long and hard are watching a German general address his troops after the German surrender. An American soldier of German-Jewish descent translates for his comrades the words spoken by the German commander, and it as if the German is speaking for each of them as well.

Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.

So for me Veteran’s Day is intensely personal because of the veterans, living and dead, who made an impact on my life. I have a bond, a special bond with so many of my brothers and sisters who volunteer to serve. Today we number less than one percent of the nation, a tiny number of people in comparison to the size of our nation and the commitments that our leaders have engaged us.

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The military is a young persons game, and I am now older than almost everyone on active duty. I have been in the military longer than almost everyone that I know, including many people senior in rank to me. I am a dinosaur, and sometimes a cranky one at that when it comes to dealing with the bureaucracy of the military, but my long strange trip continues. That being said, though I served over half of my career in the Army, at heart I have always been a navy man. I think that President John F. Kennedy expressed how I feel about serving the best. He said, “I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.’”

So today I give thanks for all them men that I mention in this post, especially my dad. For the countless others that are not mentioned by name please know that I thank God for all of you too. Someone once said “A ‘Special Day’ once a year creates an excuse for neglect on the other 365 days for mothers, fathers & veterans” Please do not let that continue to happen, please do not just look at this as time off, or if you are a corporation or retailer use this day to boost your sales by acting like you care.

I do hope that people will remember the Veterans that impacted their lives this and every day. Some may have been the men and women that we served with, perhaps a parent, sibling or other relative, maybe a childhood friend, a teacher, coach or neighbor. As we pause for a moment this Friday let us honor those who gave their lives in the defense of liberty in all of the wars of our nation. They have earned it and please thank any veteran that you know in some small way today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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4 Comments

Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, remembering friends, Tour in Iraq, US Navy, vietnam

4 responses to “A Personal Bond: The Veterans who Impacted My Life

  1. Marty

    I just wanted to thank you for your service, and the way you continue to speak up for veterans and others who are getting the short end of the stick these days.

  2. Padre,

    I think everyone you mentioned share a common core spirit of being good in their job and caring for others. Kind of reminds me of what Jesus said. “Love God with everything you got and love your buddy.” Of course I paraphrase but the meaning is the same. I am glad to know that there are men like you who live the words of Jesus. Thank you for being a loving dinosaur.

  3. My daughter’s godfather, Richard, is a Vietnam Veteran but he refuses to tell me anything about it. I want to know things like why 256 people online called him a “baby killer” when they never met him and know nothing about him (I’d trust him alone with my daughter before any one of them.) But he won’t discuss most of it. The only thing he talks about in relation to his experience is the people who died in combat. He showed us pictures of them. We visited Bill’s final resting place on Veteran’s Day. I thought Veteran’s day was for living soldiers.
    He seems really upset about losing both his sergeants at the same time but the won’t talk much about it. He says volumes about Bill’s character but almost nothing about what happened to him. You have to know what a rolling Betty means. They walked into an ambush but I don’t know what that means either.
    Another time he said they walked into a “U formation ambush when we were on R&R.”
    When the enemy started firing they all hit the ground and “all our weapons jammed.”
    He says very little and I usually understand even less. He won’t tell me anything about the second time he went. He was an Army Ranger then.

    • padresteve

      Vicki, what you are describing is so common. I know a number of Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan vets who do those very things. The loss of your closest comrades in such a situation changes people for life. Bless both of you.

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