Category Archives: Simply Put
By Mike Whittlesey
Last week, more than 90 veterans from eastern and central Iowa were aboard the 15th Honor Flight sponsored by Sullivan-Hartogh-Davis Post 730 in Waterloo. The Progress Review has been fortunate to have a photographer along for the ride for 13 of those flights, as part of our commitment to provide each veteran with a commemorative DVD documenting their experience in Washington DC. Last week’s trip marked the first opportunity for Waterloo area veterans of the Vietnam War to make an Honor Flight, and more than 60 of the 90+ veterans aboard the flight served their country during that conflict.
Prior to the flight, I wondered if this first trip with Vietnam veterans to Washington would make for a different Honor Flight experience. It most certainly did, and in a way that was far more powerful than I could have imagined.
The challenge of shooting photos and video on the journey from Waterloo to Washington DC and back makes for a very busy day. That’s what makes the time spent in the air so enjoyable. The two hour flight provides an excellent opportunity to meet and visit with some of the veterans, always an educational experience when they describe their time in the military.
On this trip, I sat next to a veteran who spoke about serving on an LST (Landing Ship, Tank), a ship designed to support amphibious operations by carrying vehicles, cargo, and landing troops directly onto an unimproved shore. While serving in Vietnam, he described an incredibly harrowing experience, a sneak attack carried out by the enemy that claimed the lives of seventeen of his shipmates.
Researching the incident, I learned that at 3:22 AM on November 1, 1968, two large mines were detonated on the starboard side of the U.S.S. Westchester County (LST-1167). Boiler Technician Gary Wood, from Decorah, Iowa, was one of the lucky crew members who survived the initial attack. In the moments after the blast, his responsibility was to seal a door below deck to help prevent the ship from sinking.
Chest deep in water and oil, Gary knew that sealing the door would more than likely also seal the fate of anyone still alive in that compartment, a thought, he said, he has had to live with since that fateful day.
Forty-eight years later, as he prepared to visit the Vietnam War Memorial for the first time, Gary Wood carried with him a small piece of paper upon which he had written several names.
“These are my guys!” he told me.
A unique feature about the Vietnam War Memorial is that the names inscribed upon the wall are listed chronologically, so that those who served and died together will forever be memorialized together on the black granite. Gary’s search for his brothers, the shipmates who lost their lives while serving their country nearly 50 years ago, would take him to panels 39 and 40 of the west wall. Among the names listed there were the following U.S. Navy sailors:
Jackie C Carter, Richard C Cartwright, Chester D Dale, Keith William Duffy, Timothy C Dunning, David G Fell, Thomas G Funke, Gerald E B Hamm, Floyd Houghtaling III, Aristotoles D Ibanez, Jerry S Leonard, Joesph A Miller Jr, Rodney W Peters, Cary F Rundle, Reinhard J Schnurrer Jr, Thomas H Smith, Anthony R Torcivia
Gary would later admit to getting emotional at that moment. Who could blame him? Standing there with a camera in my hand, it didn’t feel right to point it in his direction, as this very personal moment played out among the hundreds of people who were milling about. Looking up and down along the 246 feet of polished granite, Gary was not alone in his emotion. Tears were evident as other veterans, family members and friends located the names for whom they searched. Some stood quietly, while others kneeled at the wall, deep in prayer.
The Vietnam War Memorial Wall was constructed in 1982 in an effort to heal the scars, still evident today, that this controversial war left behind. Standing there in the bright sunshine on a beautiful day in the nation’s capital, I was reminded why the Honor Flight program is so beneficial for the veterans who make the trip to Washington DC. It’s a journey that is perhaps even more important for our Vietnam War veterans, the men and women who did not receive the homecoming they deserved for their service to the nation.
Finally, as I ascended the walkway to return to our tour bus, I couldn’t help but think how glad Gary’s guys must have been that he stopped by to pay them a visit.
Did you know it takes more than $100,000 to make one Honor Flight from Waterloo to Washington DC? For more information about upcoming flights, how to apply as a volunteer, guardian or veteran, or how you can donate or assist the Honor Flight organization, logon to www.CedarValleyHonorFlights.org send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
The book serves as a vivid illustration that just as we are changed by events that mold and shape us, so too are the places we call home. The phrase “You can’t go home again” has come to symbolize that, as much as we may want, we cannot relive a life of the past.
Thirty years ago, Neil Mullen made a return to his home town. And the students he has served since in the Union Community School District are better because of it. A 1976 La Porte City High School graduate, Neil attended Wartburg College after graduation. After earning his degree, he then taught Business Education and Physical Education for five years at the North Mahaska School District.
In 1986, he returned home to La Porte City. And for the next 30 years, he proceeded to do a little bit of everything in the world of K-12 education, starting as a Physical Education teacher at La Porte City Elementary School. In 1989, when the communities of La Porte City and Dysart were in the early stages of merging, Neil was hired to succeed George Kelley as Principal of Union High School. He was 31 years old at the time.
Six years later, he subsequently made the transition to Principal at Dysart-Geneseo Elementary School when Joe Coffey retired. In 2005, when the Union Community School Board was looking for a Superintendent, they didn’t have to look far to find someone imminently qualified.
During Neil’s eleven year tenure as Superintendent, the Union Community School District has continued to evolve with the times. The move to more secure school facilities in a post 9/11 world, state-of-art improvements to the athletic and fine arts facilities at Union High School and the successful transition to tuition-free preschool for the district’s four year olds are just a few of the significant changes that have taken place under his leadership.
For someone who wasn’t supposed to go home again, Neil Mullen has spent the last 30 years serving his home town in a variety of roles- teacher, principal and superintendent. Having had the pleasure of working with him for three of those years, it is easy to see why he has been described as an “exceptional education leader.” At meetings, Neil listened carefully, and his words, when spoken, were usually brief and always on point. When it came to debating difficult issues, Neil’s was the voice of common sense that cut through superfluous details to the heart of the matter. And his sense of humor could add a moment of levity at just the right time.
Such was the case several years ago at a home football game on a Friday night. Prior to the start of the varsity game, with many of the elementary and middle school youngsters we were being asked to “supervise” engaged in a variety of activities that could gently be described as horseplay, I was impressed with how calm Neil semed to be, given the amount of activity around us. As I sidled up to him along the fence that surrounded the football field, eager to learn his thoughts on how to bring order to chaos, he shared his inspiration. It came, I was surprised to discover, in the form of lyrics. Quietly, he began to sing, only needing the first line of Carl Douglass’ 1974 hit to make his point: “Everybody was kung fu fighting…”
On July 1, Neil Mullen will pass the torch to his successor, current Union High School Principal, Travis Fleshner, an outstanding educator in his own right. The two have worked closely since Mr. Fleshner arrived at the high school in 2005. While there will no doubt be challenges ahead, patrons of the Union Community School District have every reason to expect their children will continue to be afforded an opportunity to receive an excellent education.
But before the 2015-16 school year comes to a close, there are just a few words that need to be said to the retiring superintendent:
“Thanks for coming home, Neil.”