By Rob Cullivan | CNews Editor
Members of American Legion Post 134 have served in Vietnam, Iraq, Bosnia and Korea, among other places, and shared their experiences of military life and views on patriotism with CNews recently.
Post Commander Barry M. Larrain is a retired Army colonel who served in Vietnam, Okinawa, Korea, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Iraq. Among his duties, he worked as a Vietnamese linguist from 1968–69 and as senior military advisor to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 2009–10.
Larrain noted being a veteran has strengthened his commitment to the nation and its principles, and given him experiences that make him realize the impact his service made. For example, he said, he was deployed to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Dec. 1995, just after warring parties in the former Yugoslavia had signed the Dayton Peace Accords.
“My unit was one of the first to arrive in the city, which was badly damaged following years of war between Serbia and Bosnia,” he said. “I was with a few other soldiers moving through the city when a half dozen people saw us and started yelling, ‘USA, USA, USA.’ It was uplifting! During the war 10,000 Sarajevo residents were killed by artillery and mortar rounds, or sniper fire. These people were much more than grateful for our presence.”
With July 4 approaching, he added that it’s a holiday he wishes included reflection, not just celebration.
“I think July 4 should be a time for introspection, taking into account the complex history of the country, our successes and our failures, and a visceral appreciation for ‘There but for fortune, go I.’”
Peenesh Shah, a member of the Post’s executive committee, was an army sergeant who served in Iraq, and is now an assistant attorney general for the Oregon Dept. of Justice.
An aid station and evacuation medic in Baghdad, he had to respond to calls to evacuate casualties and also worked in a hospital emergency room. He said veterans are a diverse lot and he wished people would get to know more of them. Common misconceptions of veterans, he said, are “that we’re all the same, that we all share the same political views, that we’re all damaged in some way.” He noted that his own experience of military life was both uplifting and challenging and even contained moments of humor.
“One time a drill sergeant told me I was so bad at calling cadence that I needed to get a bowl of rhythm next time I was at the cafeteria,” he said.
Post Adjutant Patrick Bardel was a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps, from 1979–85 and served in various locations stateside. Serving has given him a sense of duty fulfilled, he said. “I am proud to have been involved in the defense of our country,” Bardel said. “The Cold War was a risky period of our history, and as we are seeing in Ukraine, there are some leaders that only respect power.”
He noted veterans bring to civilian life various characteristics that are useful to society. “There are many skills we learned in the military that translate well into the civilian world—leadership, organization, honesty—that aren’t recognized by employers who have no contact with vets.”
Bardel said serving in the military has given him a sense that the flag stands for more than one type of politics. “Our country’s government will always be a work in progress,” he said. “If the arc of justice and liberty keeps improving, with everyone’s help we can make this country better every generation. Recognizing and improving problems is a feature of democracy and not a problem.”
Robin Eckstein, E-4, Army, served from 1999–2007 here in the United States, as well as in Germany. She did a tour in Iraq in 2003 as a truck driver delivering supplies around Baghdad. She is now Post 134’s finance officer and said she’s working hard to revive the American Legion locally. “I bring fresh perspectives and want the Legion to change and start meeting the needs and wants of new generations of veterans that no longer just want a bar to sit at,” she said.
The military was a mixed bag of experiences for her, she said, noting she liked the camaraderie but disliked “the sexual harassment and old-boys-club attitude of it.”
Life in a war zone brought the cost of citizenship home to her in a particularly difficult way, she added.
“I saw my friend in the hospital after he had been blown up in a roadside bomb,” she said. “He said it wasn’t worth it. Almost losing his life and he said it wasn’t worth it. I think about that to this day knowing he has to live with disabilities for the rest of his life.”
Eckstein said the American Legion should continue to expand its historic mission to assist veterans like her and those with whom she’s served. “The American Legion has done a lot of important lobbying in Congress for rights and benefits for veterans and that work is extremely important.”
CNews Editor Rob Cullivan is a veteran journalist, publicist and grant writer who has written about everything from rock ‘n’ roll to religion. He possesses a deep affection for writers and photographers who hit deadline.