Webster County veterans helping veterans — in life and in death

-Submitted photo
Roger Simonson, left, an Army veteran, and David Ray, a Marine Corps veteran, pose next to the van that they use to take local veterans to the VA Medical Center in Des Moines for appointments.

For Roger Simonson, the best part of escorting a fellow military veteran for an appointment at the VA Hospital in Des Moines is the conversation along the drive.

“Being a former service person, there’s a camaraderie, one veteran helping another,” said the Vietnam veteran of his volunteer work with the Veterans Transportation Service. “They have lots of stories to tell, some of them good, some not so good. Everyone has an individual story and that’s what I find interesting.

“This is my way of paying it forward. Someday I may need a ride, so for as long as I can do it and my health allows, I will. Someday, someone else may be driving me down there.”

For Rich Lennon and Jerry Auten, the best part of being a member of the VFW Honor Guard honoring a veteran at his or her funeral – the rifle salute, folding of the flag and presenting it to loved ones, the playing of Taps – is the families.

“We might do two funerals in a day,” said Lennon, an Army veteran of Vietnam and Iraq. “By the time you get done with a long day, it’s still a good feeling. You feel good to honor the veterans who passed away. Someone has to do it. If it wasn’t us, it wouldn’t get done. Families always come up and tell you thanks. We tell them it’s our honor to be able to do it.”

-Submitted photo
Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1856 Honor Guard fire a rifle salute during the July 2013 funeral of Walt Stevens, editor emeritus of The Messenger and a World War II Army veteran. They are, from left, the late Don Jordison, Rich Lennon, the late John Woodbeck, the late Jerry Webb, Jerry Auten and the late Dean Williams.

Agrees Auten, an Army veteran of the Korean War who served on the Honor Guard until retiring a year ago when he reached 90: “The families really love it. They thank you; it seems they can’t thank you enough.”

Jim Peterson, whose Peterson (no relation) Post 431 American Legion Honor Squad in Gowrie is active in honoring veterans at their funeral services – rain or shine, summer or winter – recalled providing honors for the funeral of veteran Junior Hasty when snow was gusting and the temperature was 20-below.

“But we were out there and did our job,” he said. “It’s an honor to be part of final rites. There are times when I may not have known them, but I know they took the same oath that I did – to support and defend our Constitution. A lot of veterans came home, went about their lives and never discussed final rites. So, at times, it means a lot to the families when it may not have meant so much to the veteran.”

Veterans helping veterans – in life and in death.

These men and women are among hundreds of Fort Dodge and Webster County veterans who volunteer their time and talents to “paying it forward” for fellow veterans. They give freely of their time, working behind the scenes with little 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 volunteers with Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Chapter 29 of Webster County who drive fellow veterans to the VA Hospital in Des Moines for their medical appointments. (Simonson, commander of the chapter, said more drivers are needed.)

When a VA doctor tells a patient that he needs to come, sets up an appointment for a veteran in Des Moines and the veteran needs transportation, the veteran contacts Ron Arends, the transportation coordinator for the chapter, who arranges a driver.

The chapter uses a six-passenger van to transport the veteran – individually or sometimes up to four veterans in a trip – for the 190-mile roundtrip to the VA Hospital in Des Moines where the driver waits until the appointment is completed. Drivers meet VA requirements and are recertified each year. The chapter purchases and then donates the van to Volunteer Services at the VA hospital in Des Moines, which pays for gas, insurance and maintenance. The chapter serves veterans from Webster and Hamilton counties.

“The veteran needs to be able to transfer themselves in and out of the vehicle,” Simonson said. “We make sure they get to the front door of the hospital and if they need assistance, the Volunteer Services gets them to the right place. We wait until they’re done, usually 1-2 hours, and then drive them back home. I love the stories they share along the way. They’re all interesting in their own way.”

Before the COVID-19 outbreak two years ago, the Fort Dodge drivers made the trip two or three times a week. Now they average about four a month, Simonson said, most of those transported being veterans of the Korea and Vietnam eras. As time passes, fewer and fewer are World War II vets. Those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan generally are able to drive themselves and do not avail themselves of the service, he said.

Simonson and Ray are also active members of the VFW’s Walter Porsch Post 1856 Rifle/Honor Squad which takes part in about 70 to 80 military funerals a year.

Lennon said, “When you go into the military, they tell you that 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 cooler temperatures, desert-tan jackets. They are normally joined at a funeral by two active-duty service members – one of whom must be from the deceased veteran’s branch of the service – who spread the U.S. flag over the casket, fold it and present it to the veteran’s family. With an urn, the flag sits beside it on a table – and is unfolded and then refolded before being presented to family.

The M-1 Garand rifle is used by Honor Guard members who fire three volleys in honor of the deceased, which is 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).

Two who retired recently when they reached 90, after many years of service, were Jerry Auten, who served in the chemical corps during the Korean War, and Chuck Baedke, who served in the Army of Occupation of Germany after the end of World War II.

Said Baedke, “It seemed like we all worked together pretty well, under all weather conditions. Sometimes in the summertime we’d be standing in rain and in the wintertime, in snow. We were honored to be there.”

Another recent retiree is Jerry Thoma, an Army Vietnam veteran and retired longtime Webster County deputy sheriff, who elected to step out of the Honor Guard last month because of health issues.

“The thing I really liked about my years with the Honor Guard was giving my brother veterans a sendoff that is appropriate for all veterans,” Thoma said. “It’s gratifying when families come up to you afterward to thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed it – the families, the camaraderie with all the guys on 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 for Ed Ruddy, a fellow member of the St. Edmond High School Class of 1964. Ruddy, who died in 2016, was a Navy veteran who served 20 months in Vietnam.

“I definitely wanted to make everything perfect for the sendoff for Ed,” Thoma said. “We grew up from grade school on up. I think we honored him well.”


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