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A duty to remember: Upper Columbia Academy honors students who served in military during Vietnam War era

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 9, 2017, 1:32 p.m.

Nobody had seen Roy Wall, class of 1966, since he left for Vietnam. “He hadn’t been here for 50 years,” said Wall’s Upper Columbia Academy classmate Bud Smick. “Nobody would have expected to see him on this campus.”

Wall had traveled to UCA’s Spangle campus from his home on the north end of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. “He drove for two days,” said UCA Principal Eric Johnson. “He was just sitting out there on the bench.” Wall was there to see his name, etched in gold letters, on the monument. He was there for closure.

The Upper Columbia Vietnam (War) Era Servicemen Monument was the brainchild of Army Brig. Gen. Michael Walter, M.D., UCA class of ’67. The black and gold stone monolith – matching the school colors – was etched with the names of 124 Vietnam War-era soldiers, all former UCA students.

“We just wanted to have a lasting memorial, to thank them for their service,” Walter said. “Many if not all of (the school’s) veterans were never thanked.”

“They were never really given the credit or the welcome home that they should have had,” said Dick Scheib, class of ’66. “It was not a popular war; all of us had issues with people disrespecting our uniforms.”

UCA’s soldiers carried an additional stigma: the Seventh-day Adventist Church, founded in 1863 in the wake of the Great Awakening of the mid-19th century, is a pacifist sect. UCA is an Adventist school. “Seventh-day Adventists are conscientious objectors,” Smick said. “The church believes in service, but our soldiers can’t carry guns.”

The monument stands near the center of campus, in the northeast corner of the prayer garden. “Everyone on this wall are people that attended (our school),” said UCA Vice Principal Julie Hagele. “Several of them, it was right after their last day in high school they got drafted.”

“We were just kids,” Scheib said. “We were carefree, mischievous high school kids, and then we got drafted and got sent off into these things that no one prepared us for.”

Seeking a way to serve

The Vietnam War hung over the 1960s like a pale specter, its ghostly fingers reaching into every American city, town, village and freeway exit with a sign that said next gas 71 miles. Everybody knew somebody who had gone, and many knew somebody who didn’t come back.

UCA’s kids went to war along with the rest. “They didn’t run off to Canada or burn their draft cards,” Walter said. “They did their duty.”

Another 24 veterans from the school have been identified and will be added to the monument at a later date. “Some went to Vietnam, some became white coats. Most all of them were medics,” Smick said.

Seventh-day Adventist Desmond Doss was awarded the Medal of Honor as a combat medic during World War II, the first conscientious objector to receive the military’s highest honor. “He was folklore,” Walter said. “Everybody knew who Desmond Doss was.”

Doss was instrumental in starting a medical cadet corps after the war. “Many students – Adventist, primarily – went through this training,” Walter said. “Learning about the military, learning how to march, learning how to stand in formation and some first-aid training.”

“It was the Adventist way of telling people about the military,” he said. “It got them ready for military life, so when they were drafted, it wasn’t such a culture shock.”

The mental preparation paid off; dozens of UCA graduates served with honor during the Vietnam War era. But nothing can prepare a peaceful soul for war.

Class of ’66 ASB President Carl Garver was a decorated combat medic in Vietnam. “He was calm; if there was a decision to be made, Carl was the one to make it,” Smick said. “But when he came back he was very combative, and he had a short fuse. He just wasn’t the same guy.”

Gordon Livingston, Marlene Livingston Curry’s first husband and the father of her three children, served as the medic for a reconnaissance unit that operated behind enemy lines, earning three Bronze Stars and a Silver Star. “He had nightmares that were just terrible for years,” said Curry, class of 1966 . “In his mid-30s he just got so depressed.”

Livingston died of a gunshot wound in 1985. “To this day I don’t know if he committed suicide or he was murdered,” Curry said. Livingston was 38.

“A lot of guys came back, went to work and got married, but they were never the same,” Smick said. “It was like they died over there but they didn’t know it.”

Smick’s UCA roommate Tom Dutrow didn’t come back. “He was like River Phoenix in that movie ‘Stand by Me,’ ” Smick said. “He taught me how to live.” Dutrow died in a rocket attack near the demilitarized zone in 1968.

Always searching for opportunities to serve peacefully, many Adventists volunteered for Operation Whitecoat. “From about 1953 to 1970, there were about 2,000 soldiers, primarily Adventists, that went to Fort Detrick, Maryland,” Walter said. “Back then (the Army) was involved with biological warfare because the Russians were doing it and so these kids … tested a lot of vaccines.”

“They were guinea pigs,” Curry said.

“They had this giant sphere, about 80 feet in diameter. They aerosolized the bacteria and volunteers (were) infected,” Walter said. “They observed them to see what the effects were, and they designed vaccines to counter it.”

Dick Scheib served in Operation Whitecoat. “I was … exposed to defoliants and biological warfare agents,” he said. Doctors recently diagnosed Scheib with cancer, related to his time with Operation Whitecoat.

“There’s a movie called ‘Operation Whitecoat’ that came out last spring,” Walter said. “The numbers weren’t exactly right, but it talks all about it.”

Healing ceremony

Walter, Smick and Curry spearheaded the monument project. Walter ran things from his home in California, while local residents Smick and Curry did the legwork. Smick handled the search for classmates and fundraising, while Curry handled promotions and logistics. Classmate Alicia Fleck Brown was the project editor, molding Smick’s creative energy into coherent messages and proofreading the monument.

Students, staff and alumni dedicated the monument in a ceremony on Sept. 29. Army Col. Bruce Ham, M.D., class of ’67, gave the invocation. Air Force Sgt. Gail Jones Branum, class of ’66, presented colors.

Walter presided over the playing of Taps and called the roll. “President Lincoln said, ‘A nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure,’ ” he said. “That’s what we are doing today.”

Scheib told Walter that the night of the ceremony was his first good night’s sleep in many years. “It changed my life,” Scheib said. “The dedication was a very large measure of healing for all of us.”

Curry published a UCA Vietnam memorial video, “To Honor,” on Oct. 6. “There aren’t words for thanking people for sacrificing their lives … serving for our freedoms,” she said. “How can we continue, without thanking (them) and thinking of what our fellow classmates did for us?”

Johnson and Hagele sat at the monument with Roy Wall for hours, as the stories poured out and 50 years melted away. “A lot of them, like Roy … they came back and they felt like … they weren’t worthy,” Hagele said. “This has been a really good connection, a chance to (tell them) we’re all people, and we appreciate what you’ve done for our country.”

Washtucna farmer Dave Fisher, who volunteered for Operation Whitecoat in the early 1960s, sent along a thank-you note after attending the dedication ceremony. “I fail to describe my feeling as Taps was played and God Bless America was sung by the choraliers and the orchestra,” he said. “As a member of the original choraliers, back in 1961-62, I’m sorry I couldn’t join in the singing.”

“The lump in my throat was just too large.”


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