“Lest We Forget”

We’re home!

In the past 39 hours we have been on five planes, touched down in three separate countries, said goodbye to five of our Veterans in San Francisco, and the remaining seven were warmly embraced by an official welcome home by hundreds of people in the Springfield airport. This incredible moment was long overdue……it was the welcome home they never received. Words cannot adequately describe what we have experienced these past two weeks. To say that this is a once in a lifetime educational experience is an understatement. We gained a small understanding of the emotions of war and we were given the opportunity to walk alongside our Vietnam Veterans as they relived emotional experiences that would forever impact their lives. Coming back to Vietnam allowed many of these brave souls the chance to gain a sense of closure. These memories will never be forgotten, and we take pride in the fact that we are charged with retelling the heroic stories of these 12 brave men. Their story must never be forgotten.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank the many individuals who made this trip possible. A trip like this requires help from just about everyone within the campus community. So first, we would like to thank everyone at College of the Ozarks, especially Dr. Jerry C. Davis and the Board of Trustees. Their vision and support of this program is what has made this such a success. Thank you to Deans and College Vice Presidents for their support. Thank you to Diana Winkle for helping with logistical support. Thank you to Nurse Lori, whose kind heart and medical expertise is beyond compare. Also, a huge thanks to Sara Franks. This trip was successful and/or possible because of the long hours and relentless work ethic that Mrs. Franks puts into the program. She ensures that we have a smooth enjoyable trip. No details are missed under her guidance. Thank you to Valor Tours and John Dewing for the countless behind the seen hours spent orchestrating this trip. Thank you to our photographer John Luck for capturing this incredible journey. Finally, we would like to say thanks to everyone who has followed us on this amazing journey, and the families who were willing to once again send their loved ones back to Vietnam. Again, thank you to everyone (and everyone we’ve failed to mention) who has made this program the success that it is.

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We cannot end this blog without mentioning Dr. Fred and Mrs. Rachel Mullinax. They are the true life and spirit behind this amazing program. The Mullinax’s have dedicated their lives to educating and serving people. Through their leadership, the College’s Patriotic Travel Program has changed the lives of college students and our nation’s finest heroes. Dr. and Mrs. Mullinax have successfully overseen over twenty patriotic trips to some of our most iconic battle sites across the world. It has been a true honor to be in their presence and under their leadership. Fred and Rachel, THANK YOU for your servanthood and Christ like leadership. We can’t imagine another trip without you. Enjoy your retirement!

2016 Vietnam Patriotic Travel Group

“Lest We Forget”

“This Time We All Came Home Together”

We started our adventure as a group of students and veterans and we come home as one family. It was bitter sweet this morning as we left Hanoi. Our next journey has just begun as we start our way across the Pacific: Taipei, an 11 hour flight to San Francisco, a short jaunt down to Los Angeles, then Denver, and finally home—Springfield, MO.

It has been an amazing two weeks. As we sit in the Taipei airport awaiting our flight, here are a few of the sites that left us with a lifetime of memories. And this time, unlike the Vietnam War, everyone will come home together!

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“This Time We All Came Home Together”

“I Never Have a Bad Day”

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1 Corinthians 10:13

“No temptation has overtaken you except for what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it”.

This is the verse that my veteran, Colonel Norman McDaniel recited to himself when he was a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton.  Norm received official orders in October 1965 for a one year tour of duty with the 41st Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron at Takhli Air Base in Thailand to fly combat missions over North Vietnam in the EB-66C Destroyer. During his 51st combat mission, Norm’s plane was shot down by a surface-to-air-missile about thirty miles northwest of Hanoi on July 20, 1966. He was captured the moment his parachute hit the ground. Norm was held captive as a prisoner of war for six and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton. Torture, harassment, and uncertainty were daily occurrences. For the first two weeks, he did not know whether it was day or night because he was confined to a sunless cell. The guards would drag him out and torture him every couple hours until he would give them some sort of information. Even though Norm was faced with torture every day for six years, he did not lose hope. He knew that God was faithful and able to bring him through this horrendous time in his life.

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I have had the pleasure of being by Norm’s side during this trip and I can honestly say that he has the most positive and uplifting attitude of anyone I have ever met. Norm is able to find the good in any circumstance. He told me, “If I wake up and can speak in English and hear a response in English, or open the window to see the sunlight, I know it’s going to be a good day. Through all of my struggles, God has always been faithful to me.”

Today we toured the Hanoi Hilton.  It was a surreal feeling to walk the same paths that Norm had taken forty-three years prior. I couldn’t help but imagine Norm being tortured and beaten in the same spots that I was now freely touring, and the emotions I would experience in his shoes. However, Norm did not show much emotion during this tour. Instead, he was focused on educating the students and veterans with both historical and gospel truth.  He is truly a humble and forgiving man.

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“We are family now.” This group of 12 veterans and students bonded immediately in the San Francisco Airport. It was in that moment that I knew we were embarking on something that would go far beyond a trip overseas with a POW. It has become a two weeks of high fives, laughs and love from a man who for nearly 7 years received the exact opposite. Norm loves people. Norm loves God. Norm loves life.

Norman McDonald has changed my life. He has taught me to trust God completely and to look for the blessings in every circumstance. Through his influence on my life, I have vowed to myself that no matter the situation, I will never have a bad day.

Kaitlin Kroese

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“I Never Have a Bad Day”

“I’ve Got Something For You To Do First”

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“They could beat me and kick me around, but they could never get inside my head and break me.” – Colonel John Fer; a 4:16 miler, United States Air Force Academy graduate, prisoner of war, and man of God.

On February 4th, 1967, while coming out of a left turn headed back to Thailand after capturing electronic intelligence over northern Vietnam, the B-66 Destroyer he was piloting was hit by two surface-to-air-missiles, killing three crew members and forcing him to eject. Suffering from a lacerated knee and temporary blindness, stripped of his uniform and survival gear, John was captured, beaten and taken as a prisoner of war. He spent the next 2194 days, from 1967 to 1973, as a prisoner in the Zoo Annex, Riviera, eventually called the “Hanoi Hilton.”

43 years later, we have returned to the spot of his imprisonment, to the heart of the North Vietnamese Army and the heart of anti-Americanism during the war, to the infamous Hanoi Hilton. No doubt, to the great disapproval Ho Chi Minh himself, it was also home to the unbreakable sprit of some of the fiercest communist resistors and American patriots in history. The system of leadership hierarchy and communications created and practiced by the POWs was a great testament to the American ingenuity and courage of these men. The 5×5 tap code matrix consisting of 25 letters was a daring way to pass intelligence without the guards knowing. Maintaining communication built unity and an incredibly strong bond between the prisoners. To signal the end of every message they would tap “Good night” and “God bless you.”

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God has always been the center of John’s life. He believes his POW experience was God’s way of saying “Whoa Fer, I’ve got something else for you to do first.” Hanoi Hilton presented a challenge so great that it would force John and the other POWs to seek a strength beyond that of even the toughest man, and he recalls “I prayed when I woke up, I prayed before my morning meal, I prayed after my morning meal, I prayed all day long.” He would pace in his solitary room five paces each way praying, asking for courage, asking for strength. It was the cure for being scared of the uncertainties and the pain.

While the United States was in the midst of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, the Israeli Olympic hostage crisis, and the rise of bell bottom pants, John was locked in a prison 8,000 miles away. While shackled to his bed for days on end without being allowed to move, John often wished he could have a rifle to fight alongside his fellow Americans in the south. While enduring torture and confinement, John maintained the ability to see himself as part of a bigger mission than simply surviving the war.

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It’s the little stories that he mentions in passing that are sometimes the most impactful, almost as if he doesn’t recognize his own heroism. For instance, when living with 53 other men in a large cell, he would allow others to pick their portions of limited food before going to take his own. He didn’t want to be in competition with his fellow Americans because he understood the importance of uniting the prisoners by being an example of selfless leadership.

This morning, smiling and laughing, Colonel John Fer and his fellow POW Norman McDaniel walked out of that prison with a bond that can only be established through sacrifice and love for their fellow man. And the love and forgiveness of Christ in their hearts.

Loyal Carpenter

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“I’ve Got Something For You To Do First”

“How Do You Like Me So Far”

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“Hello. I’m Eddie. How do you like me so far?” says Eddie Neas in his charismatic Brooklyn accent, with a glimmer of humor in his eye.

Sergeant Major Eddie Neas is a man of many words, but not many words can describe him. To start, he is the most humble man that you will ever meet, but has never met anyone who he hasn’t blessed with his confident, vivacious personality. His mission in life is not to be recognized for his own accomplishments, but to carry on the legacy of his fallen comrades. As Eddie says, “They can’t talk for themselves anymore, so I have to be their voice. “

Eddie is a Marine and fought in the battle of Hue during the Tet Offensive in 1968, and for the first time in 48 years, he returned to that exact battle site with our group of students and veterans. Our adventure started with a cruise along the Perfume River, and already I could tell that Eddie was preparing himself for an emotional journey. He climbed into our boat, and after casting off, Eddie and I made our way toward the aft of the boat. “That bridge there in the distance,” he said, pointing down the river, “was blown right in the middle column.” Once he said that, I began to imagine what the city would have been like that day; with NVA floating down the river; bullets, mortar fire, and attack aircraft sounding off somewhere in the distance. I was lost in this trance of thought until Eddie patted me on the shoulder, and the moment passed without further comment, but it set the tone for the rest of the morning.

“Someone,” he paused as his eyes began to water up. “Someone got hit at this very spot.” As we marveled at the centuries-old historical sites within the Imperial Citadel at Hue, a small cluster of bullet holes in a concrete wall were what caught Eddie’s well-trained eye. He ran his hand along the outer walls, and swallowed hard as he felt the ricochet marks of the bullets. As I watched this Marine recollect the life-altering moments that would forever be engrained in his memory, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the continued devotion he has retained for his fallen brothers all of these years.

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We walked down some streets and alleyways and ended up at the Cau An Cuu Bridge, where Eddie made the comment, “that small building over there is where I would guard and patrol this canal every single day until I got wounded.” Stretching out his hand towards the east he began again, “Over there is where everything took a turn for the worse.” We started walking to the end of the street and came to an intersection. “Oh my,” he began, “the pagoda and the small bridge is still there, I cannot believe it.” He walked inside the small pagoda and began to weep. After a short while, he explained what happened at that sacred place. “This is where Sgt. Burkhart and I got shot. We were receiving small arms fire from the houses over there.” He pointed at a house across a small bridge. “I heard someone say my name and when I turned around I got shot in the back. I yelled ‘Sergeant, I’m hit.’ The only thing that he could say was ‘Alfie, I can’t move or feel anything.’” Eddie began to cry again and my heart grew heavy with emotion. Seeing Eddie cry made me realize that even the strongest of men cry. Everyone in the group, including myself, began to weep with Eddie for the events that took place 48 years ago.

After a few minutes, Eddie took us across a small bridge. He laid his bags down, pulled out a commemorative coin, and explained its significance: “This coin is for Fisher, Gonzales. Burkhart, and all the other men that perished during Hue City!” He kissed the coin and with all his strength, threw the coin into the canal. We watched the coin fly through the air until it finally splashed into the water.

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The events that took place this day differ greatly from the events that happened 48 years ago. For this Marine Sergeant Major it has brought closure, and for me, Eddie has become one of the most inspiring men that I have ever met. So Eddie, do I like you so far? The answer is a definite YES; I wouldn’t trade you for any other veteran.

Grant Talburt

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“How Do You Like Me So Far”

“Seconds”

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7 seconds to land.

7 seconds to lift off.

12 seconds to live.

These are a few of the statements engrained in David Garrett’s mind in the 27,993,600 seconds he served in the Vietnam War. He was a UH-1 door gunner and flew missions over the Perfume River and into the A Shau Valley. Over the past two days, Dave has been able to revisit these locations and I have had the humbling opportunity of accompanying him.  This last week has been full of stories from Dave; some have made me laugh, some have made me cry, but all of them have made me think.  The seconds he endured here are unlike any I could even begin to imagine.

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The story that I will remember most vividly is when Dave regained his faith. He was raised by a religious mother who he loved dearly, but by the time he got to high school he had lost faith in God.  One day he was on patrol when a soldier, high on opium, caused an ammo box to explode, injuring Dave. When he regained consciousness he started praying.  Since that day Dave has prayed every morning and every night.  It was this horrible incident that reignited his faith.

Our time in Vietnam has been memorable for many reasons, but perhaps the most touching is Dave getting to experience this trip with his little sister, Lori. “Nurse Lori” as she is known on campus, and who has looked after our health and well-being on the trip, was only five when he went to the war. They were virtually inseparable before he deployed.  If you were to ask Dave what got him through the war, he would undoubtedly tell you it was the thought of returning home to Lori.  Watching the two of them experience this journey together has been one of the sweetest blessings so far.

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This past week has also been full of growth and healing for my friend Dave. He has been haunted by his memories of the war and living with guilt and shame for the past 45 years, but over the last ten days he has been able to share his story and listen to the stories of the other veterans.  This time of sharing and listening has healed Dave’s war wounds and brought him closure.  I have been deeply inspired by his emotionally and spiritual growth throughout this week.

When you first look at David Garrett you will see a mustached, shy, tattooed, older man. However, what I, and others on this trip, have found is that this man (who loves his Harley more than anything) also has a heart of gold. Dave is compassionate, caring, kind, loving, faith-filled, and honest.  Although his time in the war was difficult, he has never withheld any of his experiences from us students.  He treats everyone he meets with love and respect.  He has an incredible ability to overlook imperfections in people and see the good in everyone.  I admire David Garrett greatly.  Walking with him through his past journeys and hardships has been the greatest honor of my college career.  From reliving his old memories to making new ones, the 777,640 seconds we have spent together thus far will be some that I never forget.

Michaela Schaal

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“Seconds”

“Chocolate Icing on the White Cake”

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Today we traveled through some of the most rugged terrain in Vietnam when we visited Khe Sanh (the scene of a major battle in early 1968) and the A Shau Valley (“Hamburger Hill”). Ed Lohman, Dave Garrett, and my veteran Joel Trautmann discussed their personal stories of service. These men are living embodiments of courage, and as Joel was talking I couldn’t help but be proud of the sacrifices he made, but I also noticed the similarities we share.

Joel likes chocolate. He’s not obsessed by any means, but he likes it just as much as the next guy and he doesn’t want too much of it at one time. In fact, he says he loves white cake with chocolate icing because it’s the perfect amount– and I couldn’t agree more.

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Joel and I also share something else in common. We both celebrated our 21st birthday in Vietnam, but in very different ways and in very different years. Mine was full of cake and candles, everything you would expect on any other birthday. However, Joel’s big day wasn’t celebrated at all. Actually, he didn’t even tell anyone it was his birthday because if the other men found out that their Platoon Leader was only 21 it might undercut his leadership. Joel’s day was spent wading through the mud and seemingly unending jungle of the A Shau Valley. Day after day he would wake up, eat some chow, break camp, and head out on their daily patrol. Joel’s mission was simple—search for and destroy the enemy.

One battle, however, forever altered Joel’s life. Operation Apache Snow, better known as “Hamburger Hill,” was a ten day battle in which the U.S. suffered 70 killed and 372 wounded. On May 18th, 1969 Joel felt the full effect of the war. He took a bullet to the back of his knee and immediately dropped to the ground. When he regained consciousness, after what seemed like mere seconds, he looked around to see that no one was with him. He proceeded to sit for hours as the excruciating pain of his shattered femur pulsed throughout his entire body. As hours went by and the battle continued, his efforts to gain the attention of his company were to no avail. Finally, a fellow soldier in the distance managed to find his way to this young,  First Lieutenant who was facing certain death.

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Joel is a quiet and unassuming man, but he was willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for my life and yours. He is one of the bravest men that I have ever had the honor of meeting and absolutely no amount of blog space could be used to convey my thankfulness to him. I can only hope that this blog inspires you, the reader, to further pursue the stories of the men and women who have dedicated their lives to something greater than themselves.

On the second day of this trip, my birthday, Joel leaned over and told me that this experience was already so much more than he expected; the rest of the trip would just be icing on the cake– chocolate icing on the white cake.

So, Happy Belated 21st Birthday Joel.

Dalton Lane

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“Chocolate Icing on the White Cake”