WAR STORIES

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LOCAL VETERANS REFLECT ON THEIR SERVICE

Every year on the 11th day of the 11th month, Americans honor past and present members of the armed forces with Veterans Day ceremonies, parades and other community events. Meant to honor the bravery and sacrifice of the men and women who have served in the U.S. military, as well as the families who have been left behind to wait and worry, the holiday was first established as Armistice Day in 1918. It marked the treaty signed by the Allies and Germany to end fighting on the western front during World War I. In 1954, the holiday was renamed Veterans Day in the U.S.

The Lowcountry is home to many veterans and active-duty service members from all branches of the military. As tribute to their service, Monthly interviewed several local veterans about how they served and what Veterans Day means to them.

JACOB MORROW

United States Marine Corps

Jacob MorrowHE KNEW I NEEDED TO GET TO THE FIGHT

Jacob Morrow doesn’t know how old he is or when to celebrate his birthday. But he knew from an early age that he owed society a debt of gratitude and wanted to find some way to pay it back.

Morrow was a toddler living in a Catholic orphanage in Vietnam when he was evacuated by American troops during Operation Babylift and eventually adopted by an American family. Although his adopted father was a Marine, the prospect of military service didn’t really appeal to Morrow — he wanted to be a chef or work in the sports industry — until he found himself at a crossroads.

After a year at Millersville University in his Pennsylvania hometown, Morrow took a year off to figure out his next step. A family friend who served in the Marine Corps suggested that Morrow join service, and the military again provided an opportunity for a fresh start.

Morrow fast-tracked through the Corps as a combat engineer, earning a meritorious promotion to sergeant within four years. His gung-ho nature led him to the drill field at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, where he spent three years as a drill instructor. It was during that time he met Jennifer Brown, a Bluffton native who would become his wife and give birth to the couple’s first child, a son.

In 2000, the small family was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, where they remained for six years. While living overseas, the couple had another son, but Morrow was itching to “get to the fight” so he could earn a promotion from gunnery sergeant. Just when he thought he was headed to join Operation Iraqi Freedom, a last-minute change of orders sent him to Quantico, Virginia, to train troops at Officer Candidate School. Though he was disappointed, Morrow knew his opportunity to join the front would come soon enough.

“I had a good section commander,” Morrow said. “He knew I needed to get to the fight, and he was looking for every possible way I could get to the fight after I was done there.”

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He got his wish in 2008. A unit based in Beaufort was in need of an engineering operations chief, allowing Jennifer and the boys to be near her family while Morrow deployed to Iraq. He spent a year in Iraq overseeing a unit that primarily repaired airfields, preparing his younger charges for a potential battle that fortunately never came to their door.

“For those ones that saw death, those ones that saw guys get blown apart and stuff like that, it took a mental toll on them,” said Morrow, who retired in 2012 at the rank of master sergeant. “I was fortunate enough that I didn’t have to see some of the horrific things that some of these guys have seen.”

Today, Morrow is enrolled at Armstrong State University in Savannah, where he is working on a degree in physical education in hopes of becoming a teacher and coach. One of his recent assignments for English class was to read Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” a collection of short stories about a platoon of American soldiers fighting in Vietnam. Needless to say, it hit close to home.

TONIA VOEGELE

Air Force

Tonia Voegele

I WAS IN MILITARY INTELLIGENCE, SO THAT’S PRETTY MUCH ALL I CAN TELL YOU.

As an 18-year-old working in a retail clothing store and taking community college classes part-time in her hometown of Pasadena, California, Tonia Voegele was facing a future she wasn’t excited about. She had just been made a supervisor and was being groomed for management, a promotion she didn’t want to stick around to see come true.

So she went to see the Air Force recruiter and changed her path dramatically.

“I was in military intelligence, so that’s pretty much all I can tell you,” Voegele said with a laugh. “Anything I know is probably not classified anymore, but I have no way of knowing.”

Jokes aside, Voegele certainly chose an interesting time to enter the field. She enlisted in 1985, at the height of Cold War tensions between the United States and what was then the Soviet Republic. Her time in the military lasted until 1993, so her tenure also included the first Gulf War.

“There was a lot of stuff to know,” she says.

Voegele’s duty stations included Texas, England, Korea and Fort Meade, as well as temporary duty assignments at the Pentagon and in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She worked the European and Far East theaters and was assigned to the National Security Agency, but she was never close to combat.

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“I don’t think they even let women near armed conflict when I was in,” Voegele said, though she has seen that gradually change with friends who remained in the service after she left.

Despite the limited roles for women during that time, however, Voegele never felt out of place, neither as a woman nor as a minority. Though she grew up in the melting pot of Southern California and married a white man, she found the military environment she experienced to be inclusive — and more rewarding than a career as a retail manager.

“The military has always been one way for people of color to succeed, to get out,” Voegele said. “When I was in, there were a lot of people of color, and there still are.”

Lauren Evans

United States Navy

Lauren EvansI DID EVERYTHING BACKWARDS.

On the eve of her assignment to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany in 2006, Lauren Evans had dinner with her younger sister, who made a quip to the server about sending her sister off to war at her advanced age.

Evans was 59 at the time and a grandmother of seven.

“I did everything backwards,” she says with a laugh.

Indeed, Evans was about 20 years behind the typical curve when she commissioned into the Navy Reserve at age 41 in order to pursue a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Her wealth of nursing experience made her a valuable asset, though, and she soon was commanding reserve units during her one weekend a month and two weeks of active duty a year, often overseeing humanitarian missions.

Evans was recalled twice during her 20-year tenure. She was stationed at Great Lakes Naval Hospital in 1991, but that assignment lasted only five weeks until Operation Desert Storm concluded. Her assignment was more intense in 2006, when she was sent to Landstuhl — the primary hospital supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in the Middle East.

Evans spent 13 months at Landstuhl, where one to three planes filled with wounded soldiers arrived each day. The nature of the wounds changed depending on the nature of the battle, but often included severe burns, gunshot wounds from sniper fire, and devastating injuries from improvised explosive devices.

The medical team at Landstuhl typically treated injured soldiers and sent them stateside within 24 to 48 hours. Once the injured soldiers were on their way home, the medical team was left to wonder how their former patients fared.

“What we saw was pretty horrendous, day in, day out,” Evans said. “People don’t realize that we’re still at war. Even when we were in Germany, we would come home and the hard part was that people acted like nothing was going on. We’re still at war — all over the globe — and it’s not cooling down.”

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As a reservist, a nurse and an older woman, Evans was cognizant of the need to command respect. She instructed her charges to always remember they weren’t simply nurses, but “military officers who happen to be Navy nurses.” At one particular training session, she overheard a young pilot comment that he didn’t approve of women in the service because they were too compassionate.

“I just looked at him and said, ‘Listen, honey, when you’re lying on the ground with your guts hanging out and calling for your mama, you’re going to want someone who has a little compassion,’ ” she said. “That shut him right up.”

Russ Spicer

United States Army

Russ SpicerONE DAY YOU’RE A CIVILIAN AND THE NEXT DAY YOU’RE DRAFTED INTO THE ARMY.

Russ Spicer didn’t choose the military life, but he has chosen to stay involved.

Nearly five decades after he was drafted into the Army, Spicer operates the Lowcountry Foundation for Wounded Military Heroes, a nonprofit group he and friend Jim Miller founded after they retired to “make sure veterans have some resources to help them that guys in my generation just did not have.”

The seeds were planted when Spicer was drafted in May 1968, heading off to basic training and then advanced infantry training, Officer Candidate School, and helicopter flight training. Spicer served a two-year tour in Vietnam from 1970-71.

Though he returned to civilian life when his commitment was up, Spicer’s military background has permeated his life. His son-in-law recently retired from the Army after 20 years, and his grandson is a first lieutenant with the 101st Air Assault out of Fort Campbell and was recently called up to active duty.

In fact, it was an old military pal — retired Lt. Gen. David Weisman — who encouraged Spicer to find a way to help veterans during a golf trip to Hilton Head Island, and the Lowcountry Foundation for Wounded Military Heroes soon was born.

Over the past seven years, the foundation has donated $910,000 to various military charities through a partnership with the PGA Tour’s Birdies for the Brave program, providing 14 support dogs to wounded soldiers through K9s for Warriors, full scholarships for two Clemson students whose parents were killed while on active duty through the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, and five mortgage-free homes for injured veterans through the Military Warriors Support Foundation, among other donations. The foundation relies on a network of nearly 200 volunteers, none paid.

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And it wouldn’t have happened if Spicer’s hand hadn’t been forced by the draft.

“We no longer have true citizen soldiers as such, where one day you’re a civilian and the next day you’re drafted into the Army,” Spicer said. “My goal was to make the most out of that.

“I’m just proud to have served. I’m even more proud to be able to help the current generation of soldiers. I’m glad the disciplines I learned during my four years of active duty have allowed me to help others.”

Dennis Gillespie

United States Coast Guard

Dennis Gillespie

WE WERE LOCKED AND LOADED

As Greece and Turkey fought over the island of Cyprus in the summer of 1974, Dennis Gillespie was a young U.S. Coast Guard gunnery officer on the deck of the USS Blakeley, which aided in evacuating U.S. and British nationals from the Mediterranean island. 

He was responsible for the 5-inch gun mount on the front of the destroyer and the surface-to-air missile launcher on the back, and for a while, he feared he might have to use them.

“We were locked and loaded,” Gillespie said. “If the Turks had taken down one of those helicopters, we probably would have started lobbing shells on the beach.”

The episode was one of the most eventful in Gillespie’s five-year stint on active duty with the Coast Guard, which included 21 months on the high-endurance Coast Guard cutter Dallas and 18 months on the USS Blakeley before spending the remainder of his full-time commitment at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., working with the Navy on weapons systems for Coast Guard ships.

Instead of leaving when his time was up, Gillespie accepted a reserve commission and served another 16 years before retiring in 1993 as a commander.

While military readiness has always been one of the Coast Guard’s roles, the branch is better known for its search and rescue responsibilities. That was the focus of most of Gillespie’s tenure in the reserves, where he spent one weekend a month and two or more weeks of active duty a year, often commanding units. 

Gillespie and his fellow reservists would take over search and rescue roles for the active-duty members of the Coast Guard one weekend a month, ready to assist anyone having trouble at sea.

“We were wearing the same uniform, doing the same job,” Gillespie said. “As far as the ’customer’ goes, it doesn’t matter to them.”

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Gillespie stays connected to the Coast Guard through the academy’s alumni association and has been amazed to see the advancements in technology, ranging from weapons systems to the sensors used in operating a ship. No longer do guardsmen need to rely on a sextant and use the sun and stars to find their bearings.

But some things never change: The Coast Guard is there when needed, from providing sea-based security at Guantanamo Bay to rescuing victims of hurricanes.

“It’s a small service,” Gillespie said, “but it’s got some big jobs.”