Veterans Day officially falls on Sunday, Nov. 11 this year and will be officially observed on Monday, Nov. 12.
But for many people who have served in a branch of the U.S. military, being a veteran is an everyday reality. That’s true for three Greene County men, all of whom says they do not regret their service, despite the physical and mental marks each man has taken away from the experience.
They represent just three of the more than 240,000 veterans who live in Iowa alone.
Bill Kendall, 77, of Jefferson served in numerous Special Forces and Special Operations units for 20 years from 1954 to 1974 during the Vietnam War. In some operations, the people in charge were with the CIA.
Nick Friess, 63, of Jefferson served during the Vietnam Era as well, as a medic in Special Forces Green Beret from January of 1968 to January of 1971. In fact, he and Kendall served in the same area of Kontum, Vietnam, for a time.
Cale Luther, 43, of rural Jefferson served in the Army Infantry from 1994-1999, got out of the service, then re-enlisted in the Iowa National Guard. For Luther, the 9-11 attacks and the aftermath was a major factor in enlisting in the Guard in 2005. A month and a half after his enlistment, he was deployed to Iraq and stayed there for 22 months.
From a young age, Kendall, Friess and Luther all were determined they would join the military. All three have a family history of military service, although that wasn’t necessarily the determining factor for them.
Kendall says four of his uncles, and one aunt on his mother’s side, along with his father, and two of his uncles on his father’s side, served in World War II. There are 146 years of military history in the family, dating back to the Revolutionary War.
Even as a young boy, Kendall wanted to join the military.
“I was going to join the Navy, and I went to sign up, but I told them I had had rheumatic fever. That disqualified me, so I turned right around and joined the Army. I just didn’t tell them about the rheumatic fever,” he says.
When he talked to the recruiter, he told him he wanted the toughest thing he could find and that led him to the Special Forces.
Friess, whose father served in World War II, and who had a grandfather who was in the service, says he enlisted in part because he had the draft hanging over his head. The family history of service didn’t enter into his decision.
“I also wanted to prove to myself I was brave,” Friess says. “It didn’t take long for me to figure out war isn’t about being brave. It is about doing what you have to do even though you are scared. Most people in Vietnam did what they needed to do — not letting people down. You just do it.”
Family history was a huge factor for Luther. He wanted that service to be in the Army infantry. His father was in the Iowa National Guard and both of his grandfathers served in World War II and were involved in D-Day. There were other family members as well.
“I wanted to join right out of high school, but my father wanted me to go to college first, so I went to Simpson College in Indianola and enlisted after my college graduation,” Luther says. He served active duty from 1994-1999.
Now, his son, who is 17, plans to join the military.
Pride rings through all three men as they talk about their service. There is no bragging involved, just the fact that serving was important to them. Reality also rings through their voices, remembering some of their experiences, sometimes not until years later, and having to wrestle with the mental impact of service during war time.
Luther received a medical discharge from the Iowa Guard in 2009.
“We discovered I was having brain seizures,” he says. He had experienced some dizziness, but it became critical when a blackout caused him to have a vehicle accident.
“I don’t remember anything until I woke up in the hospital three days later,” he says.
The brain seizures, which are now controlled by medication, were happening because of concussive brain injury caused by explosions. He was exposed to five different close calls with IEDs (improvised explosive device) exploding nearby. Fortunately, he had no outward physical injuries. But looking at his brain through a CAT Scan, his frontal lobes are “just white,” from the brain damage, Luther says.
Luther also suffers from Post Traumatic Stress disorder. He was recently given a Dutch shepherd puppy which will become his PTSD Service Dog. Luther is doing the initial obedience training for the puppy that is now 3 months old, and then he and the dog will be trained together.
Once trained, the shepherd, named Karma, will be Luther’s nearly-constant companion. Luther will depend on the dog to help him feel safer when he’s away from home, even providing a buffer between himself and other people.
Luther understands why he can no longer serve, but says he would much rather be in the military.
“I would go back in a heartbeat,” he says. He says he’s also proud of his son for planning a military career.
“The military is an easy place to succeed. In the military, there is a clear plan on how you can move up the ladder,” he says.
He feels the troops do some good while they are in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that he isn’t sure the changes made while the troops are there will be lasting.
Luther has a soft spot in his heart for all veterans.
“I haven’t met a veteran yet who isn’t honorable,” he says.
He told the story of witnessing a U.S. veteran and a German veteran, who discovered they had fought against each other in a specific battle, hug each other.
Brenda, his wife, has been a flight nurse in the Iowa Guard.
Kendall served in special operations of many different kinds. A lot of the work he did was with six to eight men who did reconnaissance behind enemy lines. Their jobs were not to engage others in battle, but that kind of thing did happen.
“We lost a lot of good men,” he says.
“In 20 years I made over 3,000 jumps, some at night,” he says.
And, although he did land in some trees and ended up with a few bumps and bruises, there was only one time he came close to losing his life in a jump, and that was during a training exercise. When he allowed another person to move past him and jump ahead of him, the jumper accidentally caught the lines to Kendall’s parachute. The jumper made it clear of the plane, but Kendall’s lines became tangled in the plane’s rudder. The suction of the air against the lines slammed Kendall into the side of the inside of the plane. He yelled “knife” and was eventually able to cut his lines and free himself. The incident caused the plane to drop several hundred feet and the rest of the jump exercise had to be aborted.
Kendall says he, too, has some mental issues related to service during the war. He has been hospitalized a few times, and it caused issues earlier in his marriage. He started having blackouts while he was still in the service but was never discharged because of it.
Kendall runs his hand along his arms and says, “See, there is no hair on my arms. That’s because of napalm.”
The hair was burned off in an incident where he and several others were surrounded by the enemy. They were eventually pulled out by a helicopter, and he, along with others, received the Silver Star, one step down from the Medal of Honor.
Friess has been hospitalized several times, he says, some for physical reasons, some mental. Initially, he was injured in Vietnam when he stepped on a land mine which shattered his heal. He spent 20 years dealing with recurring problems caused by that injury before he, along with his doctors, decided to amputate below the knee.
He deals with the mental fallout from his service daily. Through the help of some very intensive therapy, he has been able to recover some of the memories that have caused him problems. His love of art has been a major outlet and self-therapy for Friess as well.
His house and his art studio reflect his musings through self-portraits, some rather dark. He has gone to college off and on over the years for an art degree, and is currently working on a master’s degree in Fine Arts from Iowa State University.
Friess does oil painting and digital art work. Currently, he is working on a thesis for his master’s degree on a combination of traditional and experimental media, particularly digital media and creating digital objects.
“I enjoy building images in 3D,” he says.
Friess has a carefully-arranged pile of “stuff” on a table in his arts studio from which he has made pencil drawings, oil paintings and digital art. The arrangement includes an old doll he rescued from a sale, a tricycle that belonged to a family member, a small wooden mannequin, two old wooden potato mashers and much more.
“I tend to like objects and going back to them, and thinking about how the person or people who made them thought to do what they did,” he says. The doll particularly spoke to him because it reminded him of the children in Vietnam.
Friess says he doesn’t regret serving during Vietnam.
“If I hadn’t joined the service, my path in life would not have unfolded the way it did. I wouldn’t have met my first wife,” he says. His wife, Becky Bennett, died in 2001.
Both Friess and Kendall say they feel lucky being able to come back to a small town in the Midwest after getting out of the service during Vietnam.
“Everyone was decent to me, regardless of their feelings,” Friess says.
Kendall echoes those thoughts, and adds, “Not all Americans hated Vietnam veterans, just a minority. But, if you left base in Oakland, Calif., and had on a military uniform, you stood a chance of being killed.”
He says he still lives with that feeling.
One thing Kendall says he does not like is being called a hero.
“Almost every veteran you talk to would tell you they are not a hero. We don’t choose to be heroes,” he says.