Tag archive

Veterans Day

Attitudes Toward Vets Have Changed, Says Air Force Official

in News/military
Veterans Day
2354

***For All Things Wyoming, Sign-Up For Our Daily Newsletter***

CHEYENNE — The attitudes of Americans toward veterans have changed significantly in the last 50 years, according to the commander of the Security Forces Group at F.E. Warren Air Force Base.

Col. Damian Schlussel, speaking during a Veterans Day commemoration in Cheyenne, said veterans no longer face the disdain that was seen among members of the public during the Vietnam War.

“I think over time people have started to realize just how many sacrifices those in uniform have made to guarantee people’s freedoms,” he said. “And whether you disagree with the politics or whether you disagree with things that we’re doing, they still recognize one thing, that there’s still a man and a woman and a family who are serving to guarantee those freedoms.”

Jerry Bowen, a helicopter pilot who served two tours in Vietnam and one mission in the Gulf War, said the treatment of veterans in the 1960s and 1970s was so bad that he hesitated to tell anyone he was a veteran.

“I got off the airplane in San Francisco and hippies were there spitting on you and stuff like that,” he said. “It was just horrible. I was afraid to stand up and say I was a Vietnam vet because of all the controversy when we came back.”

Also present at the ceremony was Gus Fleischli, a former legislator and Cheyenne business owner who served as a gunner on a B-17 bomber for 32 bombing missions over Germany in World War II.

“Every time you got in an airplane, it was scary,” he said. “When you got in that airplane, you were on your way to Germany. And that was no fun.”

Fleischli, who organized “Honor Flight” trips for Wyoming veterans to the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.,  said by the time he was flying missions, he felt the Allies in WWII had the upper hand in the war. However, he said the outlook wasn’t quite so positive in the early days of the war.

“I didn’t think the Allies were going to lose the war, but it was damn close,” he said. “We were on the downside at that point. When I was flying those 32 missions, we were on the positive. We were bigger than they were at that time.”

***For All Things Wyoming, Sign-Up For Our Daily Newsletter***

Military experience translates well into civilian life, say vets

in News/military
2347

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

On day one of boot camp, every recruit is taught the values of punctuality, personal grooming and working together, but some lessons gleaned from military experience aren’t as immediately obvious.

Ret. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Luke Reiner, formerly the Wyoming Military Department’s adjutant general, joined the army in 1982 to experience something new, but stayed in as the service reforged his sense of duty.

“I thought it would be fun,” Reiner said. “The local (Army National Guard) unit was a combat engineer unit, and they would do cool things with explosives.”

He didn’t intend to become a career soldier, but the military became an integral part of his life.

“Initially, you stay because it’s cool, and you have a purpose,” he said. “But, in my mind, the purpose is what grows on you over the years. In the end, you stay because that becomes your calling in life.”

In March, Reiner hung up his uniform and accepted a new leadership role as director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation. The helmets changed to hardhats and the uniforms switched from green suits to orange vests, but he said most of his experience translated easily. 

“My job as the adjutant general was very helpful in transitioning to WYDOT,” Reiner explained. “I oversee roughly the same number of people. But whereas in the guard, there were lots of part-time positions, at WYDOT, there are more full-time positions.”

Both entities break down into divisions or districts, each with their own needs and specialties. 

Whether soldier or civilian, he said employees have the same needs.

“Personnel issues don’t change,” Reiner said. “You still have to ensure your men and women get paid, have good health care and a place to live.”

Reiner still rises early to for physical training, but he has plans to grow out his beard eventually and settle into civilian life.

“The military was a phenomenal job,” he said. “It was an opportunity to serve the state and nation and be part of the backbone of this nation. I feel like I have the opportunity to continue doing that here at WYDOT, and for that, I am thankful.”

Managing relationships

In Iraq, David Sheppard, a former U.S. Army staff sergeant, learned to balance the needs of a village with the demands of a nation at war.

“Our job was to remove the temporary bridges that were installed (on a primary traffic route) and build permanent roundabouts and culverts,” Sheppard explained. “Part of that mission was not only construction, but there was a small village right off the road we needed to maintain a positive relationship with.”

Many Iraqi citizens viewed the coalition forces as foreign meddlers with no understanding of local politics and customs. Relationships between the local populace and soldiers were often tense. 

“In the military, you’re forced into a group, a unit, regardless of race, religion or economic factors — it’s a kind of melting pot — and expected to work together as a team,” Sheppard explained. “You become very effective at making it a productive situation despite your differences.”

After working with the Iraqi town’s leadership to ensure their needs were also represented in the project, Sheppard’s unit finished the roundabout and moved down the road without incident. 

About a month later, a coalition forces patrol rolling through the town discovered and seized about 160 tons of explosive materials intended for use as improvised explosive devices that could have been used against Sheppard and his unit.

“I always circle back to how effective it was to take care of people and manage those relationships — it saved my life,” Sheppard said. “I try to translate that experience to my own everyday life in just being a productive human.”

Sheppard joined the guard in 1999 at 18 and served for about 12 years. Nowadays, he manages 911 Roofing Solutions Inc. in Cheyenne and uses the leadership skills he learned as a soldier to guide his management style.

“In the civilian world, you may encounter a handful of leadership styles over the course of a career,” Sheppard said. “But in the military, you’re exposed to so many different leaders at so many levels, that it really gives you a good perspective. It gives individuals the opportunity to take the good and throw away the bad in forming their own leadership style.”

Arena of beliefs

Christy and Andrew Stigen met while stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. 

Not long after they started dating, they encountered their first major hurdle as a couple — dual deployments to separate areas of operation. 

“I think it was a lot easier for us to transition back than it was for others,” said Andrew Stigen, who exited the U.S. Air Force as a staff sergeant in 2011. “Both of us came back with the same experience. Other couples, where one stays behind and the other deploys, can have differing expectations when they are reunited, but we knew what we needed from each other.”

Serving together was not only the foundation of their marriage, but it allowed them to cultivate their world view as a couple.

While Andrew Stigen grew up in Casper, Christy Stigen was raised in a small Texas town. 

“Being in the military exposed me to a lot of cultures,” said Christy Stigen, who left the U.S. Air Force as a staff sergeant in 2012. “I’m more open to new experiences now.”

Andrew Stigen said serving alongside people from every walk of life helped him understand viewpoints he might have disregarded otherwise.

“Everybody has a different mindset growing up in the world,” he explained. “Until people are thrown into an arena of beliefs, they really don’t know where they stand.” 

After Andrew Stigen finished his enlistment, Christy Stigen was stationed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base and the couple moved to Cheyenne, where they decided to stay. After the military, both decided to use their experiences to help veterans. Andrew Stigen manages contracts for Veterans Affairs, and Christy Stigen processes claims for the Veterans Benefits Administration, a division of the VA.

They have a 3-year-old daughter and a son on the way.

“Joining the military was the best thing I ever did,” Andrew Stigen said. “I’m not going to encourage or discourage my kids from serving, but if they come to that decision on their own, I’m certainly going to paint in the best light.”

No matter the era or branch of service, Reiner said one thing binds all veterans together and drives them long after their time in the military is done.

“At some point, every veteran raised their right hand and swore to protect the Constitution,” he said. “That has no expiration date.”

Wyoming veterans weigh in on celebrating Veterans Day

in News/military
2342

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Gravesite flowers on Memorial Day, barbecues on Labor Day, social media outrage on Columbus Day — most holidays have their traditions.

But Veterans Day tends to elude veterans and civilians alike.

Despite numerous veterans in my family, including myself, I can’t think of a single instance we even acknowledged Veterans Day.

Perhaps our family is an outlier? So I dialed up some of my old army buddies and asked how they planned to spend Nov. 11. 

“What’s that on — a Monday?” asked Victor Varela, a former U.S. Army sergeant who served with me in Iraq. “Yeah, I’m working. I might go have a beer after, I guess.”

All the calls ended similarly and I was left asking what it is we are supposed to celebrate and for who.

Veterans Day is widely viewed as the day to honor the living, while Memorial Day is reserved for honoring the dead, according to the Veterans of Foreign Wars website.

Originally dubbed Armistice Day, the holiday was created to honor the conclusion of World War I, which ended Nov. 11, 1918. 1n 1954, Congress renamed the event Veterans Day to honor veterans from World War II, the Korean War and future wars.

Vietnam-era veteran and Laramie resident John Hursh, a former U.S. Marine Corps captain, said celebrating Veterans Day can be as simple as a couple words and a quiet moment.

“Just walk up to a vet and say thanks,” Hursh said. “I think it’s best when someone comes up, looks you in the eye and thanks you for your service.”

Although he doesn’t have plans for anything fancy, Hursh said he has his own way of celebrating.

“I’m going to take a moment for myself,” he said. “It’s time to pause for a while and remember your buddies and think about how you got where you are and be thankful for our country.”

Tim Sheppard, executive director of the Wyoming Veterans Commission, is a retired Army colonel who also served during the Vietnam War. Sheppard has seen many behavioral trends come and go since the late 1960s, but one receiving increased attention in recent years is “Stolen Valor,” the act of lying about military service to garner sympathy or respect.

The fraudulent acts could make some people hesitate before thanking a vet, not knowing if the person’s experiences were genuine. Sheppard said people should look past those rare cases and honor the spirit of the holiday.

“Take the risk and thank the vet,” he said. “Let us police ourselves and we’ll do our best to safeguard the integrity of military service.”   

If people don’t know a veteran to thank on Veterans Day, Sheppard suggested observing a moment of silence at the “eleventh minute of the eleventh hour.” 

As for me, I still struggle with how best to honor the holiday. I was lucky to serve at a time when soldiers were well-received and have been thanked on numerous occasions for my service. It’s a good feeling, but an awkward one.

My peers were volunteers. We served because we felt it was our duty or because we needed a way out of our situations or for the educational opportunities afforded by the G.I. Bill and sign-on bonuses. 

Our country didn’t call on us as much as we stepped forward and asked for the privilege. 

It feels self-aggrandizing to celebrate that experience with a national holiday, especially a holiday created to honor those who, in many cases, were not given a choice. 

So, I plan to spend this Veterans Day focusing on the experiences of my fellow veterans and what their service has afforded future generations. 

Whether you visit your local war memorial, thank a veteran in person or share a quiet moment of reflection, your efforts are what make this country worth serving. 

Thank you.

Hunting with Heroes brings disabled veterans together for healing, outdoor recreation

in News/Community/military
Hunting with Heroes
2336

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

War is hell, but returning to civilian life can be equally daunting for many military veterans, especially those whose wounds complicate the reintegration process.

Hunting with Heroes seeks to provide disabled veterans an opportunity to heal and re-calibrate in a familiar environment with like-minded people, co-founder Dan Currah said.

“We found very quickly that the hunts were therapeutic for those veterans coming back,” explained Currah, a former U.S. Army signal corps officer. “We didn’t do that as Vietnam veterans. We didn’t associate with other veterans. I think there was a social stigma attached to our service, and for the most part, we just came home and tried to forget it.”

Founded in 2013 by Currah and Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom veteran Colton Sasser, the Wyoming-based, non-profit organization uses donated game licenses to guide hunts throughout Wyoming. 

Sasser said the experience can be a means for veterans to seize some semblance of normalcy and routine after their world was seemingly upended.

“Some of the best therapy I’ve ever got was hunting or fishing,” he reminisced. “Being out there alone with your thoughts, focused on the task at hand. But, this seems different. It’s more about the camaraderie. The hunting truly is the bonus. It’s the cherry on top.”

From the ashes

While escorting an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team through Afghanistan in 2012, Sasser’s vehicle was destroyed by an improvised explosive device.

“We hit that sucker, and it instantly killed my squad leader,” recalled Sasser, who served as an U.S. Army infantryman. “The truck was upside down, and I woke up and knew it was bad.”

The events directly following the attack remain hazy for Sasser, who blacked out several times during the next weeks. But the damage was permanent — traumatic brain injury, broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a fused spine and an amputated leg.

Months later while recovering at Fort Sam Houston, a Casper newspaper ran a story about Sasser, a Casper native. Currah, also a Casper native, was living in Texas at the time, but kept up on Wyoming news and read Sasser’s story.

After checking around, Currah and his wife discovered they knew Sasser’s parents from their high school days, so the Currahs asked to visit Sasser in the hospital.

“His dad told me he was off on the weekends with nothing to do,” Currah said. “He’s an avid hunter, and I knew some guys that were doing hog hunts, so we lined him up with some hunts.” 

Sasser said getting away from base was great, but it reminded him how much he missed hunting in Wyoming.

Once medically retired from the military, Sasser returned home and the duo started planning expeditions to help other veterans. 

“(Currah) and I just started talking about it over coffee,” he said. “I knew getting tags would be the hardest thing, because how do you plan a hunt when you don’t know when and where people will draw tags.”

Soon after cementing plans to move forward with the organization, Sasser learned about a Wyoming Game and Fish Department program which allowed people to purchase tags and donate them for re-issuance to disabled veterans and people with permanent disabilities who use wheelchairs.

“The first year we were only planning on doing 10 hunts,” he said. “We ended up doing 17, so it was a success from the outset.” 

In 2018, Hunting with Heroes hosted 230 different hunts and since 2013, Sasser guessed they’ve completed more than 1,000.

To be eligible, applicants must be 50 percent or more disabled with a service-connected disability, and they can apply through the group’s website, www.HuntingWithHeroes.org. The program is open to applicants from around the country, and Sasser said many participants come from out-of-state.

Welcome home

Diagnosed with cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange during Vietnam, Ed Klaput, a retired U.S. Army colonel, sought respite in the solace of the hunt.

“I’ve been undergoing chemo for the last three years, and I’ve been feeling better,” he said. “So, I wanted to get back to hunting elk.”

Klaput lives in Virginia, and without residency, he didn’t have much hope of scoring an elk tag anywhere along the continental divide. While serving, Klaput was stationed in Colorado, and in the late 1990s, he owned a cabin in Wapiti, so he was fond of hunting elk in Rockies. During his time in Wyoming, he became friends with author and former “Outdoor Life” editor Jim Zumbo. Klaput reached out to his friend for ideas about how to get back into the field.

“Zumbo told me about Hunting with Heroes,” he said. “I’d heard of groups like these, but I’d never gone with one.”

In October, Klaput flew out to join Zumbo, Currah and Sasser on an elk and antelope hunt near Rock Springs.

“We went out in the morning, and we weren’t there for too long before we spotted a bull elk,” Klaput remembered. “I lined up my sights, and took him down with a single lung shot. A little later, I got a buck antelope — again with a single lung shot.”

Even among of military-trained shooters and avid hunters, the marksmanship was impressive.

“They now call me Hawkeye, or Hawkeyes, I don’t know which,” Klaput said, chuckling.

Once home, his wife noticed an immediate change in his demeanor.

“She said, ‘You look so good. You’re cured!’” Klaput explained. “It took me out of a definite malaise from depression and the chemo treatments.” 

It wasn’t just the hunt and reconnecting with old friends that pulled the colonel out of his funk. He said Wyoming, its residents and the gratitude shown by tag donors, private land owners and volunteer guides all combined to create the reception Klaput never received on his trip home from Vietnam.

“I can’t put it in words — I could probably put it in tears — but not words,” he said quietly. “The treatment these vets have received from this group and the people of Wyoming is a therapy in and of itself. After 50 years, I felt like I finally received the ‘Welcome home’ we deserved.”

Go to Top