Sergeant Harper, Active Duty
At a fast food joint a young man in full uniform stood waiting for his food, I noticed he wore a Staff Sergeant insignia on his pocket. The first thought was that he was part of the tail end of those called in by the civilian law enforcement to keep people out of the burn areas. When asked if he was a veteran he said, “Not really, I’m still in the service. Wrong, he is the living personification of a veteran. Shaun Harper is in his fifteenth year of military service and has served in Iraq and Afghanistan twice. Like most men who were in battle, they are sensitive to questions about that time. Another local veteran Don Cuneo, owner of Good to Go Uniforms in Cotati, put it very well, “The battlefield experience is a sacred brotherhood of warriors. It is unique to us and very personal.”
Sergeant Harper is from a little town in Texas, Conroe. He has a sense for things mechanical and became a helicopter mechanic just a few years after enlistment. He was stationed in Germany, there he met his wife, Angelina. They brought a girl into the world, Abigail, now a few days shy of turning five-years-old. Abigail has dual citizenship, half German and half American.
After years of service in and out of the battlefield the Army offered him a position as a recruiter. He and his girls now live here and were themselves on evacuation notice a few weeks ago. Fortunately, they were not burned out. As a man who loves to help and protect others, he wanted to join in and do more with those fighting the fires. The issue was one the government is very sensitive to, active military personnel are forbidden to take a role in civilian activities. He said many local military people here wanted to get in and get dirty, they could not. Shaun talked to some about the new military and the future of the fighting man. Gone are the days when the army would take any warm body. Today they look for men and women who are serious, have some education and show an aptitude for being part of a broad effort. Those with big, visible tattoos, grotesque piercings and a lot of attitude do not make the cut. “We check criminal backgrounds, we test from several angles and vet applicants thoroughly before moving forward. The soldier of the future will be well educated, a person of conviction and one who understands the bigger picture.” The government pays for advanced education, supports their soldiers with tuition, housing and other expenses.
“I joined up right out of Santa Rosa High School in 1943 to fight in the war. Before my training was complete WWII ended. I joined the active reserves and in 1950 I got a telegram from president Truman, ‘Son, your country needs you. Report in ten days to Hamilton Air Base in Novato.’ I trained as a jet fighter pilot and was sent to South Korea. We were the first to fly jets in combat. I flew 100 combat missions and was sent back to the states to finish out my years of active duty. They had me fly all kinds of jets and planes, one posting was as a test pilot at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. I don’t want to know the kind of scary ordnance I dropped back then. After active duty I finished law school and raised my family here at home. I cherish my time in the military, if I had it to do over again, I would have stayed on as a career man.”
“I was posted in Germany at the Ramstien Air Force Base, near Baumholder, where Rommel had trained his tank corps during WWII. My job was to supervise the disposal of military surplus, the thing that struck me was the level of waste. One guy had a huge pile of U.S. military side arms, he would pick one up, put it in a vise and cut it in half with a torch, then throw it into another big pile of scrap metal. Left whole those pistols would sell for a lot of money today. I taught school on the base, graphic arts and photography. I took side trips in Europe and the Mediterranean a great way to see the world.”
“Joining the service after high school is kind of what guys did back then. I joined the army in 1955, I wanted to go to Sheet-metal school, they put me in as a combat engineer after basic training at Fort Polk, LA. I was assigned to the DMZ in Korea, I have never been so cold. To this day I appreciate being able to wash up with warm water in the morning. I was re-assigned to the motor pool. I had been a model airplane enthusiast and was sent to Japan to teach the kids in the airbases and some of the Japanese kids how to build and fly a model airplane.”
“In the Cub Scouts we visited Mare Island and got to tour a submarine, I knew from that day what I wanted to be. The day after I turned 18 I joined up, then told my parents. When I went into the Navy recruitment office the guy said, “Submariner, you’re kidding?” I served from 1969 to 1973 my basic training was at the Great Lakes base in Illinois. I was assigned to the Navy base in San Diego, I worked in the engine room and got used to the smell. It got in my skin so bad that on visits home my mom would not let me sit in the house until the engine odor died down some. There were 85 guys on board and we became very close, I got out in ‘73 and I’m still in contact with them. I enjoyed my time in the military.”
“I was in the Navy from ‘59 to ‘64 part of the Naval Supply Corps. Shipboard duty was on the U.S.S. McKinley (AGC 7) a part of the amphibious force, flagship. I don’t regret a day of my time spent in the Navy.”
“I was in Vietnam in ‘67 and ‘68. Our job was to be the ears and eyes of the men in combat. Both sides sent messages by Morse Code, listeners would submit a suspicious message to be interpreted and then judged weather or not it was of military importance. If it was a target we would then triangulate the position and order airstrikes or assign an appropriate response to that position. Air strikes were common, we would order ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ a C-130 to bomb and/or go down to tree top and machine gun the hell out of the jungle. There were .50 cal. machine guns bristling out of every window and porthole. As the pilot leveled off they would open up and blanket the spot with rapid fire. I was there during the Tet Offensive the only thing I saw was rain, lots and lots of rain.”
“I served from ‘69 to ‘70 in Vietnam, the war was winding down at that point. I was in combat but the rules of engagement were sometimes hard to swallow. At one point we were a mile from a major supply depot and command center for the NVA, we could have easily taken them out. To go there we would have been in Cambodia, we knew and they knew we couldn’t cross the border. After most battles we were fed extra well and usually got ice cream for dessert. I wrote inside my helmet, ‘Will Kill for Ice Cream.’ The Vietnam War became a presidential ego play, neither Johnson nor Nixon wanted to be the president that lost a war.”
“I served from ‘83 to ‘86, there was no war going on which made it easier. I was stationed in Germany, great beer, beautiful women. We did war exercises, which were great fun, each man did his job and your team wanted to win. The Army teaches a young guy responsibility, I would not have wanted to miss it in my life but I would not want to do it again.” Don collects and restores military vehicles, you may have seen him driving them in parades.
Seaman First Class
“I was drafted in 1944, prior to that I was working as a welder at the Sausalito shipyards, it was good to have a steady job after going through the Great Depression and I felt I was helping out with the war effort. I went through basic training in Idaho. I was assigned to the Shoemaker Naval base in Alameda. We were not told anything about where we were going until after the ship left the harbor. It was a pukey ten days to Pearl Harbor, our first stop. One of the jobs offered us there was to relieve the tenders that set protective nets at the mouth of the harbor. I became a Net and Boom guy until the war ended. I got out in ‘46, came back home and started a job driving a delivery truck for Nelligan Feed stores.” Ike worked as a volunteer fireman for many, many years. Although the recent fires were overwhelming he knew what to do and what not to do and how much time he had to get out. “I have seen a lot of fires in my day, it took a while for the fire departments to get organized and stop the fire at Coffey Park. Don’t kid yourself, without them the fire would have spread to more neighborhoods and burned many more homes.”
“I was assigned to the DMZ in Korea. I was in charge of the “Honest John” rockets kept to keep any incursions into the DMZ by the North Koreans. I dated the Admiral’s daughter, I was never assigned kitchen patrol after that. What I learned in the Army is, seek out what you want, don’t sit around and wait for someone to hand it to you.”
“I spent most of my time in the Philippines on or near Clarke Airbase taking care of animals that belonged to the brass. It was at the time of the Vietnam War I saw action for a very short time. I was with a pilot who was on a simple mission to pick up goods for the brass back in the Philippines. We landed just fine, walked into the terminal and spoke to the base commander. “Son we are under rocket attack.” The pilot said, “Dick, I’m going back to Clarke, if you’re coming with me then let’s go.” That fifteen minutes was the sum total of my time in the war zone.”