For Roger Simonson, the best part of escorting another military veteran for an appointment at the VA hospital in Des Moines is the conversation along the way.
“As a veteran, there’s a camaraderie, one veteran helping another,” the Vietnam veteran said of his volunteer work with the Veterans Transportation Service. “They have a lot of stories to tell, some good, some not so good. Everyone has an individual story and that’s what I find interesting.
“It’s my way of giving back. One day I might need a ride, so as long as I can do it and my health allows it, I’ll do it. Someday someone someone else could lead me there.
For Rich Lennon and Jerry Auten, the best part of being a member of the VFW Honor Guard honoring a veteran at his funeral – the rifle salute, flag folding and presentation to loved ones, playing Taps – is the families.
“We could do two funerals in one day,” said Lennon, an Army veteran of Vietnam and Iraq. “By the time you’ve finished a long day, it’s always a good feeling. You feel good honoring veterans who have passed away. Someone has to. If it wasn’t us, it wouldn’t happen. Families always come to say thank you. We tell them that it is our honor to be able to do so.
To agree with Auten, a Korean War Army veteran who served in the honor guard until he retired a year ago when he reached 90: “Families love it. They thank you; it seems that they will never thank you enough.
Jim Peterson, whose Peterson (no relation) Post 431 American Legion Honor Squad in Gowrie is active in honoring veterans at their funerals – rain or shine, summer or winter – recalled giving funeral honors from veteran Junior Hasty when the snow was gusting and the temperature was 20 below.
“But we were there and did our job,” he said. “It’s an honor to be part of the final rites. There are times when I may not have known them, but I know they took the same oath as I did: to support and defend our Constitution. Many veterans returned home, moved on with their lives, and never discussed the final rites. So sometimes it means a lot to the families when it may not have meant so much to the veteran.
Veterans help veterans – in life and in death.
These men and women are among the hundreds of Fort Dodge and Webster County veterans who volunteer their time and talents to “pay it forward” for other veterans. They give generously of their time, working behind the scenes without fanfare for a cause they believe in – their brothers and sisters in arms and their families.
Simonson, David Ray, James Gormally and Larry Harklau are Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Chapter 29 volunteers from Webster County who drive other veterans to the VA Hospital in Des Moines for their medical appointments. (Simonson, the chapter commander, said more drivers were needed.)
When a VA doctor tells a patient they need to come, schedules an appointment for a veteran in Des Moines, and the veteran needs transportation, the veteran contacts Ron Arends, the coordinator chapter transport, which organizes a driver.
The chapter uses a six-passenger van to transport the veteran — individually or sometimes up to four veterans on one trip — for the 190-mile round trip to the VA Hospital in Des Moines where the driver is waiting for the appointment to be over. Drivers meet VA requirements and are recertified annually. The chapter purchases and then donates the van to the VA Hospital Volunteer Services in Des Moines, which pays for gas, insurance, and maintenance. The chapter serves veterans of Webster and Hamilton counties.
“The veteran must be able to transfer in and out of the vehicle”, said Simonson. “We make sure they get to the front door of the hospital and if they need help, Volunteer Services gets them to the right place. We wait for them to finish, usually 1-2 hours, and then bring them home. I love the stories they share along the way. They are all interesting in their own way.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak two years ago, Fort Dodge drivers made the trip two or three times a week. Now they average about four a month, Simonson said, with most of those transported being veterans of the Korean and Vietnamese eras. Over time, fewer and fewer World War II veterans. Those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are generally able to drive themselves and do not benefit from the service, he said.
Simonson and Ray are also active members of the VFW’s Walter Porsch Post 1856 Rifle/Honor Squad, which attends about 70-80 military funerals a year.
Lennon said, “When you join the military, they tell you you can have military honors at your funeral. We fulfill that.
Members of the Honor Squad wear VFW uniforms – garrison caps and khaki pants and shirts and, in cold weather, desert-colored jackets. They are normally joined at a funeral by two active duty members – one of whom must be from the deceased veteran’s branch of service – who unfurl the American flag over the casket, fold it and present it to the veteran’s family. Along with an urn, the flag sits alongside on a table – and is unfolded and then folded back before being presented to the family.
The M-1 Garand Rifle is used by members of the Honor Guard who fire three rounds in honor of the deceased, followed by the playing of Taps.
There are 18 members of the honor guard, commanded by Lennon, an Army veteran. They are: Ron Arends (Navy), Rod Dierenfeld (Army), Tom Dorsey (Army), Charlie Echevaria (Army), Dick Griffin (Army), Jared Hayes (Army), Lennon (Army), Randy Lesher (Army), Bill Mader (Air Force), Jim Peterson (Army), David Ray (Marine Corps), Verne Schmitz (Navy), Denis Schulte (Army), Ken Schreiber (Air Force), George Sexton (Marine Corps), Roger Simonson (Army ), Doug Vratny (Marine Corps) and Chris Weiland (Army).
Jerry Auten, who served in the chemical corps during the Korean War, and Chuck Baedke, who served in the German occupation army after the end of World War II, retired recently when they reached 90 years old, after many years of service. .
Said Baedke, “It seemed like we all worked quite well together, in all weather conditions. Sometimes in the summer we stood in the rain and in the winter in the snow. We were honored to be there. »
Another recent retiree is Jerry Thoma, a Vietnamese army veteran and longtime Webster County deputy sheriff, who opted out of the honor guard last month due to health issues.
“What I really loved about my years with the honor guard was giving my veteran brothers a send off that is suitable for all veterans,” said Thomas. “It’s gratifying when families come to thank you afterwards. I loved that – the families, the camaraderie with all the guys in the firing squad. It was just an honor to be able to do it.
One of Thoma’s most memorable funerals as a member of the honor guard was that of Ed Ruddy, another member of St. Edmond High School’s class of 1964. Ruddy, who died in 2016, was a veteran Navy who served 20 months in Vietnam.
“I really wanted everything to be perfect for sending Ed,” said Thomas. “We grew up from elementary school. I think we honored him well.