“Through their deeds, the dead of battle have spoken more eloquently for themselves than any of the living ever could. But we can only honor them by rededicating ourselves to the cause for which they gave a last full measure of devotion.”
— President Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
SHERIDAN — Death — the last full measure of devotion — has been paid by more than 1 million American men and women in the U.S. military since 1775.
That is double Wyoming’s entire population.
But for the millions more who have served in the U.S. military and continued to live, there have been other measures of devotion — sacrifice, pride and scars both spoken and unspeakable. For those veterans, what does it mean to be a veteran? What are the measures of their devotion?
Mel Heckman, local World War II veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor — one of only four left in the state — will say it doesn’t “mean” anything to be a veteran; he just was, is and always will be. His stories of service and his life since — indeed the lives of all 50,000 Wyoming veterans and 21 million U.S. veterans — indicate differently.
Perhaps it is time to stop taking war stories at face value and search for the meaning beneath the words. Perhaps we owe our veterans — brave, battered, successful or struggling — at least that much.
The Sheridan Press sat down with two local veterans to consider their measures of devotion.
Heckman was 17 when he joined the Navy and 18 when he watched the USS Arizona sink in Pearl Harbor.
Randy Sundquist served in both Vietnam and Iraq and says he’d go back if he could.
In the 1930s, Heckman, now 91, delivered a rural route for the Sunday edition of the Express Wagon.
“I kept reading about a guy named Adolf,” Heckman said. “He kept saying, ‘I’ll just take one more country and I’ll be satisfied.’ I thought to myself, ‘This man will never be satisfied until he has all of Europe under his wing.’”
At 16, Heckman decided he would join the Navy. In December 1940, at 17, he was sworn into the Navy, trained as an aviation machinist and assigned to the Pacific Fleet on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor.
At 7:50 a.m. Dec. 7, 1941, Heckman watched America explode into World War II when a Japanese plane bombed Hangar No. 3 near the fire station where he’d been called in to work weekend duty and relieve the regular firemen.
“Everything was on fire,” Heckman said. “Every plane was damaged, every hangar was burning, every ship was sinking or in the process of being sunk.”
Heckman watched the USS Arizona get hit and blow out of the water. He cites the numbers of men lost — 1,177 on the Arizona, 429 on the Oklahoma, a total of more than 3,000 that day — like a telephone number dialed so many times it’s etched into memory.
Did he know any of the men?
“Oh, yes, a lot were my friends.”
At 18 in Lusk, Wyoming, in 1967, the war games of Sundquist’s youth became real. He was drafted by the Army for Vietnam, so he promptly enlisted in the Marine Corps.
“Marines had a reputation of being able to survive some of the toughest circumstances you could ever imagine,” Sundquist said.
He was shipped to San Diego — his first time on a jet — had a layover in Hawaii — a sweet smell he can still recall — and eventually landed in Da Nang, Vietnam, where he served with the 1st Military Police Battalion and worked to protect I-Corps bridges that would allow Viet Cong in to destroy.
“I feel that PTSD is still with me from Viet Nam but not as intense as it was. I can still see certain scenes but don’t dream about them like I use to.”
Sundquist wrote those words in a journal entry about memories that trigger post-traumatic stress disorder. They were followed by dates and descriptions from his service in Iraq with the Wyoming National Guard: sleeping without protection while taking rocket mortar fire, IEDs on a duty to protect convoys between Baghdad to Mosul, meeting some fellow National Guard soldiers from Washington on July 13, 2004, only to find out some were killed the next day when the enemy drove a car bomb into the Al Rashed Hotel.
“That was hard to take, they weren’t even from Wyoming.”
Inside both men’s houses there are scrapbook walls.
From his recliner in his living room, Heckman can see the 1st Extra edition of the Honolulu Gazette with the screaming headline “Oahu Under Attack,” his certificates naming him a Naval Aviator and Naval Aviation Pilot and his Purple Heart.
On Sundquist’s wall there is a photo of his dad, a Navy Corpsman, a black and white photograph — Marine Corps K Company 2nd Battalion, Oct. 1967 — a young Sundquist sixth in from the right in the back row and a certificate of appreciation from the Navy SEALS for his help as a Platoon Sergeant in providing security for the Iraqi president leading up to elections in June 2004.
While both men carry scars — mental and physical — they carry their pride even higher.
Sundquist was 55 years old when his National Guard squad was activated to go to Iraq to help establish democracy in a country used as a battleground for insurgents from Syria, Iran and Pakistan.
“They didn’t tell me I had to go. They said, ‘We need you to go because of your combat experience,’ and I said, ‘No problem.’”
He was confident in his training and even remarked that in many ways combat life is easier than civilian life because of the training to handle almost any situation encountered. The blindsides come in civilian life.
Heckman echoed those sentiments when he calmly stated that Pearl Harbor caused him no panic.
“I was in the Navy; I was military; I was well-trained,” he said. “Nothing came to me as a surprise. It was military against military. We did our best to defend what he had.”
After the attack at Pearl Harbor, the Navy decided to take every island within 1,000 miles. He went with 30 men to Baomyra 1,000 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor and spent nine months there. While there he was noticed by Admiral Chester Nimitz and eventually allowed to attend Officer Candidate School in Georgia and flight school in Florida.
“Yeah,” he said simply about the honor, a swell of pride playing at the corners of his lips.
In his training, Heckman was picked to fly the Hellcat, a one-seated fighter plane.
“After I was through school, I wanted to get back to the Pacific, do a little payback time,” Heckman said. “But, the Navy told me I better not go back to the Pacific — too much hate. So they sent me out to the East Coast.”
Heckman agreed he had too much hate — in the Navy you better agree, he joked — but the altering of perception and emotion is perhaps an unexpected sacrifice of war. What can one do when he has seen maps drawn up by Japanese workers employed by the Navy at Pearl Harbor that show the exact location of hospitals, ships and fire stations and were given to the Japanese military?
Sundquist was asked to go back to Iraq two more times after his first tour in 2004-2005. His wife, Florence, said no. He listened to his bride.
After all, she was the one who had to talk herself down from a worried frenzy when she saw bombings and destruction in Iraq on TV and wondered, “Was he?” and “What if?”
She was the one who could hear mortar fire when she spoke with Sundquist on the phone and the one who had to pretend to believe him when he told her it was the screen door slamming shut.
The honor and the hope
A week ago at the Sheridan College graduation, Sundquist — who earned an associate’s in general technology — received a standing ovation when he crossed the stage. Florence has a video of it on her phone; it’s a shaky image because she was crying tears of joy for her husband.
Sundquist has never sought that honor — except for veterans who have fallen — but it’s nice when it comes.
“You don’t think about it,” Sundquist said. “I never thought anything about any of the stuff that I ever did. I don’t even take credit for any of it because I think that my life’s always been directed by what God’s wanted me to do. It wasn’t anything that I’ve done.”
Heckman will also say he was just doing his expected act of service — and people believe him because his act of service became a lifestyle. After the war he joined the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, becoming chairman of the Wyoming chapter in 2005.
He volunteers at the VA medical center, he calls the governor every year to ask him to issue a proclamation for Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, he helps orchestrate the Memorial Day parade and he tells every veteran he knows that he will always answer his phone, day or night, if they need to talk.
“It never stops. From the first bomb that was dropped at Pearl Harbor until today I’m still busy working, helping the veterans who can’t help themselves,” Heckman said. “I know what a veteran’s made out of, I know what a soldier’s made out of, I know how they’re trained and what they’re willing to do. They’re willing to sacrifice their life so we can gather here in this living room like we are right now in absolute freedom.”
‘Measures of Devotion’ series will honor local veterans
SHERIDAN — The last World War I veteran in America died more than four years ago. More than 600 World War II veterans die per day.
With each death, stories are left untold and unpreserved.
That is one reason The Sheridan Press will embark on a journey to tell the stories of local veterans from this Memorial Day weekend through Veterans Day.
But that is not the only reason.
As Keith Davidson, a member of the Wyoming Veterans Commission, has reminded crowds at Veterans Day ceremonies: “All veterans take the oath of office to defend the country of the United States. They all write a check payable up to life.”
While many have paid up to life — and deserve respect for their payment — millions more have paid somewhere in the spectrum leading “up to.”
Their scars qualify as measures of devotion, to which President Abraham Lincoln alluded in his Gettysburg address. But their stories are not all about their scars. Their measures also include discipline, pride, compassion and strength of body and character — in peacetime and war.
The Sheridan Press series, “Measures of Devotion,” will examine these stories of our local veterans. Look for one story per week, starting with World War II and continuing through Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and Iraq and Afghanistan.
The fall edition of Destination Sheridan will also be dedicated to veterans — and their measures of devotion.