WSU veterans share memories

Veterans Day, a salute to all those who have died or served in an effort to protect this nation’s freedom, will be observed nationwide on Nov. 11. The original holiday, previously known as Armistice Day, was inaugurated by the U.S. Congress in 1926, in recognition to those who served in World War I, which ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.

In 1954, the U.S. Congress deemed Veterans Day a holiday to honor U.S. veterans who served in all wars, from the American Revolution to the present.

As a salute to staff and faculty who have served in the military, WSU Today asked university veterans to share their experiences serving our country. Here are some of their stories.

By the age of 25, John Thielbahr was managing a group of 20 men in a land far from home.

Thielbahr served in the U.S. Navy from 1967 to 1969, traveling to Vietnam, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Guam and the Philippines. While in service, he came face to face with the realities of war.

“At 4 a.m. one morning we were called to battle stations to learn that the Australian aircraft carrier Melbourne cut one of our squadron destroyers in half due to mistaken communication,” said Thielbahr. “One hundred and fifty officers and sailors died … We looked for survivors for several hours. It was a somber moment for all of us, clearly understanding how close we had come to the same disaster.”

Thielbahr returned to civilian life in 1970 and moved in May 1998 to WSU, where he is the director of Conferences and Professional Programs.

Thielbahr said that any awards he received in service were too small to mention, stating, “My awards were just for being in the wrong place at the right time. I’m proud to have served and thankful to have survived it.”

“Sergeant Mama” — that’s what they called Melissa McGraw during her four years of active service in the U.S. Army. She earned that title due to her repeat pregnancies while in service.

McGraw worked in the JAG corps as a legal assistant (that’s paralegal to civilians) processing claims against the military for damage done to household goods during the moving process for relocation.

“No one was really happy when they came to see me,” said McGraw.

She also processed the paperwork for sending soldiers overseas. McGraw was about to be ordered overseas herself, but a pregnancy kept “Sergeant Mama” home.

While in service, she received an Honor Graduate Award and a letter of appreciation from a three-star general, among others. McGraw now works for WSU’s WWAMI Basic Medical Program as a receptionist.

At a time when other U.S. Army personnel were headed to Vietnam, John Tarnai was headed to Berlin. “I could speak German and a translator was needed, so I went to Germany,” Tarnai said.

He served from 1965 through 1970 during the Cold War and received a Good Conduct Medal in the process. As a translator for a commanding general for Berlin, Tarnai went on maneuvers in East and West Germany, which meant traveling through Check Point Charlie and Spandau Prison.

After his service ended, Tarnai made his way to WSU and earned his Ph.D.

“I met a lot of very different and interesting people overseas, some with less than a high school degree and those with degrees,” Tarnai said. “Ultimately, these encounters are what made me want to get a college degree.”

Tarnai started work for WSU Pullman in 1981 in the Social and Economic Science Research Center and is now the director.

Anna-Maria Shannon will tell anyone who will listen that the U.S. Air Force and ROTC offer great opportunities for people of all ages. “As an overall experience, the Air Force was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “My whole focus in doing it was to go to college, and the Air Force was really supportive of that.”

Her commanders expected her to excel academically and in leadership skills — skills she still uses. And as one of two women in a unit of 260, she proved to herself and others that she has the skills.

“My experience in the military influences everything I do, everyday,” said Shannon. “I would never change my experience.”

She feels so strongly about her service in the military that she would encourage anyone to join. “I’ve told my children that the military is definitely an option in their future,” said Shannon.

Aside from changing her scholastically, the Air Force is where she met her husband and her best friend.

After eight years of service, she is assistant director at the WSU Museum of Art, a mom and a graduate student: “The military sure helped to teach me multi-tasking!”

Don Peters spent much of his time in military service bringing entertainment to the troops. After graduating from WSU in 1969, Peters headed to Vietnam as a first lieutenant station manager of an American Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN) radio/television facility in Qui Nhon. Later he served at network headquarters in Saigon.

“My most memorable moments were the times when we were thanked by the troops for our service,” he said. “I like to think we brought home a little closer to them by airing their favorite TV shows and music.”

Peters’ stations broadcast such Vietnam favorites as “The Dawnbuster,” best known for it’s greeting: “Goooood Morning Vietnam!”

Peters started working for WSU in 1968 and is the engineering project manager for Educational Telecommunications and Technology.

Panama. Vietnam. Turkey. “One of the best parts about being in the Army is the travel,” said Bob Pringle, director of library services at the Betty M. Anderson Library, WSU Spokane.

Pringle served on active duty from 1966 to 1977 and in the reserves until 1995. From delivering computers and communications gear in dust and rain to building a well with boys from an orphanage, Pringle has years of memories from his service time.

In addition to great travel, Pringle met his wife while serving in Turkey.

“She was an Air Force nurse,” he said. “We met there and decided to get married — and move to Spokane.”

Pringle came to WSU Spokane in 1980.

Virgil Hanson served in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years under a variety of commands. He was involved in training and leading combat engineers for worldwide deployments to hostile environments.

Hanson’s memories of his time in the service are numerous and include developing partnerships with foreign countries in efforts to preserve world peace and being part of the technological transformation of the military from the Vietnam era to the 1990s.

Hanson retired with the rank of major and four meritorious awards, something he considers unique since he never was a pilot. In 1999, he came to WSU, where he works as a project manager for Capital Planning and Development.

“You’ve never lived until you’ve almost died.” That message, found written on a bunker in Vietnam and since then a hallmark for many who served in that war, aptly describes David J. Lemak’s sentiments about his 20-plus years in the U.S. Air Force.

An associate professor of management at WSU Tri-Cities, Lemak retired from the Air Force and came to WSU in 1991.

Lemak’s list of accomplishments is long and includes serving three years in Southeast Asia as a navigator on C-130s and flying missions into Vietnam and Cambodia. Those included Operation Baby Lift and Operation Eagle Pull, efforts devoted to evacuating both military and civilian personnel from war-torn areas.

“When you’re at war, you conclude that there are two types of people: good and bad,” Lemak said. “You have to look at people as individuals, not by the groups they belong to.”

Lemak was awarded the Air Medal and Distinguished Unit Citation for Valor. After completing his flying duties, he spent eight years on the faculty of the U.S. Air Force Academy. He is commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5785 in Kennewick.

Freddy Osorio has traveled the world. Twice. From what he has seen, he says, there is one place from which he would like dual citizenship — Australia.

“One of my most poignant memories in Australia was when a man came up to me and started thanking me for America’s aid in WWII,” he said.“Australians are so nice and welcoming to Americans.”

In addition to the fond memories, Osorio remembers more somber moments from his time in military service. “I have a greater appreciation for what we have as Americans now,” he said. “Something as simple as aspirin for a headache is a big deal in less fortunate countries.”

Seeing first hand the oppression some countries endure gives Osorio a better understanding of American freedoms, he said. So he feels all right about anti-war demonstrators: “That’s what’s so great about the U.S. — you can speak your mind without being locked up!”

Osorio laments the change in travel opportunities for those in today’s Navy. “It used to be ‘join the Navy, see the world.’ Now it is more fixated with the Persian Gulf.” But he quickly added that is understandable given the current situation.

Osorio retired from the military in 2002 after 23 years of service. He works for WSU as a coordinator/investigator in the Center for Human Rights.

Col. Yoshi Smith, in his 30th year of service, will retire in Summer 2004. “It’s a mandatory retirement,” he said.

Smith entered the U.S. Air Force in 1971 and has served since then, except for three years. He witnessed the fall of Saigon in 1975. As he led a formation of three KC-135 tanker aircraft at Utapao Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand, he saw dozens of aircraft fleeing South Vietnam and 13 U.S. warships steaming towards Saigon.

“Somehow, the mix of my Asian heritage and the military service came together in April 1975, during the fall of Saigon,” he said. “I have realized how America has given me the opportunity and, in particular, how the Air Force has given me the opportunity to do my best.”

Smith, who is a professor of aerospace studies and is stationed as a part of WSU’s Air Force ROTC program, has been at WSU for two years.

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