Don Buck’s B-24 bomber was shot down over enemy territory during World War II. Felicia Hemphill interrupted her education to serve in Afghanistan – and left her 5-year-old son behind. John Landon watched as his friend, Larry Dahms, fell to his death in Vietnam. Leslie Ausen fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Michael Bellin saved the lives of dogs that protect the troops in Afghanistan.
Each of these men and women – and there are so many more – are Iowa Staters who have served their country in wars ranging from World War II to the war on terrorism. Some of them volunteered for service. Others were forced into action. Some saw active combat. Others did not. All of them sacrificed.
This is our salute to them.
Opportunity for adventure
Allison Smyth doesn’t know what it’s like to have a 3-year-old.
The former Ames High student, who enlisted in the Army National Guard when she was still in high school, deployed to Afghanistan just after her son, Ethan, had his third birthday. She didn’t see him again until he turned 4.
Smyth said she joined the Guard so she would have money for college – and because it sounded like fun.
“I was a girl from the middle of Iowa,” she said. “I got to travel and do things you normally wouldn’t get to do.”
Smyth says she loved her military experience. In Afghanistan, she worked as a communication specialist in a helicopter maintenance battalion.
“I worked with communications security, computers, telephones, radios – I was like the Geek Squad, Army-style,” she said.
Smyth left the Guard in 2007 and married Scott Smyth in 2009. She received her Iowa State degree in civil engineering in 2010. She now works for the Iowa Department of Transportation. Ethan, her son from a previous marriage, is now 11, and she and Scott have a baby boy, Evan, born last August.
‘So many died you can’t believe it’
Here are three of Leslie Ausen’s overriding memories of fighting in Germany during World War II: cold, snow, and mad Germans.
Here are things he would rather forget: Fighting Hitler’s desperate armies in the Battle of the Bulge. Running across the Bridge at Remagen as German planes attempted to destroy it. Suffering through unspeakable conditions during the long, cold, German winter. Being shot in the back by a sniper.
These are not easy things to forget. But they are things that Leslie Ausen, 89, does not easily talk about.
“I never said anything about it,” said Ausen (’49 agriculture). “It was horrible. So many died you can’t believe it. You don’t know what it feels like to be that scared.”
Ausen says he did not particularly want to fight in World War II. But Uncle Sam “insisted” he go. So the “blurry-eyed farm kid who didn’t know nuthin’” sailed off to Europe in 1944, only to land on Omaha Beach and to participate in what would become one of the war’s most legendary battles.
The fighting was rough, but the living conditions were worse.
“Living out there, it was so cold,” he said. “It was worse than the combat. One night we crawled into a foxhole and by morning our bodies had thawed [the frozen ground] and we could not get out. Once, I loosened my boots to give my feet a breather, and my feet [immediately] started to swell. I tied them back on quick. Some of the men lost their feet.”
After receiving a Purple Heart for the sniper’s bullet and finishing his tour of duty, Ausen joined hordes of other GIs getting their degrees at Iowa State. He spent his career as a high school vocational agriculture teacher. He and his wife, Arlene, had four children. Arlene died just last year.
Today, Ausen has moved from his home in Rockford, Iowa, to the Evergreen Senior Living community in Osage, Iowa. He is in good health and has many friends, including a group of former students who take him out to breakfast once a month.
“I’ve been really fortunate,” he says.
When Ray “Bubba” Sorensen first painted a patriotic scene on a 60-ton rock for Memorial Day 1999, he thought it was a one-and-done.
The 19-year-old Iowa State student painted the boulder, located in rural Adair County on Iowa Hwy. 25 just south of I-80, “to remind people that Memorial Day isn’t just a three-day weekend.”
But the Memorial Day rock was popular. Friends, family – even strangers – encouraged him to paint a different scene the next year.
Over the years, “The Freedom Rock” has become a destination for veterans to meet and reflect on their service in the armed forces. Sorensen, now 32, has re-painted the rock 12 times, and he’s become something of a celebrity, appearing on “Good Morning America” and “The Morning Show,” in Redbook and Guideposts, and in other national media.
Each year the rock tells a different story. Sorensen uses his unusual canvas to honor veterans from many wars: Vietnam, World War II, the Gulf War, and more. Every spring, once it warms up enough, Sorensen coats the rock with white house paint and starts a
new mural. By Memorial Day, it’s finished – and veterans come from all over the country just to see it.
“Memorial Day is huge,” he says. “And in the summer, it’s like a little festival. We even get tour buses.”
Sorensen takes his artistic responsibility seriously.
“I want to give something back to veterans,” he says. “People treat this [rock] as sacred ground.”
Not every enemy in a military conflict carries a gun.
Some have six legs.
Jennifer Remmers, an ISU-trained entomologist, served in Iraq with the Navy’s Forward Deployable Preventive Medicine Unit.
If the military taught her one thing, it was this: “You learn fast on your feet.” Her expertise is in insects, but Remmers says, “By default, entomologists deal with anything that’s not human. You’re expected to be an expert on snakes, feral dogs and cats, bats, mice, whatever. I’d never worked with snakes until I got a call that said, ‘Come get this cobra.’”
Remmers (’99 entomology, MS ’01) served two back-to-back tours in Iraq. She says she found her main enemy to be the sand fly, whose bite could cause leishmaniasis in humans.
“Leishmaniasis causes ugly ulcers on the skin. It’s horrible,” she says. “There’s also a deadly form. My main job was to control the flies.”
The Burlington, Iowa, native provided pest-control education and oversight throughout western Iraq. She’s currently working in a lab in Colorado – conducting research on those same sand flies.
Beyond the call of duty
Alumnus Merlyn Dethlefsen receives the Medal of Honor
Since the beginning of World War II, 856 Medals of Honor have been awarded. Two hundred and forty-six were awarded for actions during the Vietnam War. One was given to an Iowa State alum.
Maj. Merlyn Dethlefsen (’56 farm operations) was awarded the Medal of Honor by the U.S. Congress in February 1968 “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” An Air Force pilot, he was serving in the 345th Tactical Fighter Squadron in North Vietnam when his aircraft was attacked and extensively damaged by enemy fire. Despite a continuing hail of anti-aircraft fire, deadly surface-to-air missiles, and counterattacks, Dethlefsen flew repeated close-range strikes, which eventually allowed U.S. fighter bombers to successfully strike their target.
A Greenville, Iowa, native, Dethlefsen retired from the Air Force with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He died in 1987.
The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration awarded by the U.S. government.
Are there others?
If you know of any additional ISU alumni who have received the Medal of Honor, please let us know. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘I had faith in the pilot’
The B-24 Liberator had just destroyed its target when the first anti-aircraft blast entered the side of the plane. Another blast punctured the fuel tank. Spewing fuel, peppered with shrapnel, and flying with just one engine, the crippled B-24 crash-landed in a cornfield near enemy territory with its 10-member crew inside.
For 23 days in February 1945, the aircraft and its crew were considered missing in action.
Nineteen-year-old Don Buck (’49 farm operation) was sitting in the nose turret of the plane when he saw the flak coming toward him.
“I had the best view,” he said. Once the plane was hit, Buck said he moved quickly out of the nose turret toward the back of the plane. “I needed to be in a safer place.”
The 10-man crew did not have a lot of time to decide whether to parachute out of the doomed aircraft – which Buck said is considered safer than staying inside – or ride out the crash. Ultimately, they stayed with the plane.
“I had a lot of faith in the pilot,” said Buck. “I knew he could put it down if anyone could.”
All 10 men survived the landing, which occurred near German territory in the former Yugoslavia.
Buck said it was his ninth mission as a nose turret gunner in a B-24. He said the missions were to knock out oil refineries in northern Italy, Austria, Germany, and Romania in order to stop the flow of fuel to the German army.
Following his rescue, Buck returned to Italy and flew seven more missions before the end of the war. In November 1945 he returned home to Rhodes, Iowa, where he began farming. He received his degree from Iowa State in 1949. It was there he met his future wife, Ruth Westley (’50 home economics education, MS ’69). The couple currently lives in State Center, Iowa.
A life of service
It didn’t take Joyce Brown Samuels long after she graduated from high school to leave Des Moines in search of some action.
“I wanted to travel,” she said. “I just saw that movie ‘Anchors Aweigh.’”
So she and three friends took the train to Washington, D.C., where despite her parents’ protest, Samuels joined the Navy.
This was during the Korean Conflict in the early 1950s. Samuels embraced military life, sailing through boot camp and working in personnel at a Navy receiving station in the D.C. area.
She still remembers the uniforms: starched seersucker, with a “bucket hat” and “Minnie Mouse shoes.”
A month after she began her job, she met the man who would become her husband: Charles Samuels.
“He walked in and asked me for change for a dollar,” Samuels says. “I thought, well, that’s a new line.”
Samuels served in the military for four years, including a brief stint in Long Beach, Calif. She and Charles, who also served in the Navy, eventually moved back to Iowa when Charles was hired as Iowa State’s affirmative action officer in 1973.
Samuels received her bachelor’s degree in sociology at ISU in 1978 and a master’s in professional studies in education in 1985. She worked in University Extension, which allowed her to travel throughout the state of Iowa.
She retired in 1999 and remains extremely active in the Ames community. Charles died in 2008.
Though she supports the concept of women in combat, she says she prefers her experience of supporting the troops at home.
“Some of my happiest days were in Washington, D.C.,” she says.
‘We’re in a combat zone. We’re prepared for the worst.’
An Iowa State veterinarian’s heroic efforts to save the life of a dog got him some attention in the press last year. But Michael Bellin says it’s all in a day’s work.
Bellin (’00 animal science, DVM ’07) is a captain in the U.S. Army and was last year stationed at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. As part of the 72nd Medical Detachment Veterinary Services, he frequently treated dogs for lacerations and illnesses, and it was not atypical for him to care for a dog that had been shot.
But this dog was special. Dakota, a black lab trained to detect improvised explosive devices (IEDs), was a “great dog” according to Bellin. “She was kind, loving, strong, cute. She loved to chase a ball. She had the total package.”
When military policeman and dog handler Lance Cpl. Eric Devine was on patrol with Dakota, the dog was shot in the hindquarters. Devine and Dakota quickly traveled to Camp Leatherneck to the care of Dr. Bellin.
Despite the less-than-perfect surgical conditions, Bellin was able to save the dog.
“She pulled through with flying colors,” he said. “She did fantastic. The last I heard, she was in the States and was going to be adopted.”
After the surgery, the Marine Corps News Room released a feature story titled “Dakota, IED detector dog, survives firefight.” In that story, Bellin said, “I was hoping that it was mostly a soft-tissue injury and not bone involvement because my expertise … is not orthopedics. The bullet took a funny turn…and we both ended up kind of lucky that night.”
Bellin said about 200 trained military dogs were working in his area of operation at any one time. The specializations vary widely, including patrol dogs, drug-sniffing dogs, search dogs, attack dogs, and IED-detection dogs.
In addition to surgery and other treatment for the military dogs, Bellin and the other veterinarians provided veterinary outreach programs for the local citizens, including basic animal medicine, de-worming, and parasite control for cattle, sheep, goats, and the occasional camel.
Bellin remains on active Army duty and is currently serving in Fort Campbell, Ky.
In Patton’s Army
On the day after Christmas 1944, Hugh Septer learned that he was going to war. He left the next day, leaving behind the veterinary detachment where he had been stationed in Texas. Leaving behind his wife, Evelyn.
He crossed the ocean. He crossed England at night on a train. And then he walked. The front had moved into Germany by then. Septer was a weapons carrier. He was a part of Gen. George S. Patton’s army.
A few months after Septer’s platoon arrived in Europe, the Allies celebrated V-E Day: May 7, 1945.
“That was a good day,” Septer says with a shy smile.
He moved to Ida Grove, Iowa, after the war. He and Evelyn had two children. Septer, who started at Iowa State in 1930 but left school for five years during the Great Depression, had graduated in 1939 with a degree in animal science. In Ida Grove, he was a farm manager and raised up to 1,500 head of cattle.
Evelyn died 13 years ago. At age 100, Septer still lives in his home in Ida Grove. He still drives a car. And he still grass-feeds a small herd of cattle just outside of town.
“It’s something to do,” he says. “That’s rather important.”
‘I know I’m doing the right thing’
The education of senior agronomy student Felicia Hemphill of Emerson, Iowa, has been interrupted by her deployment to Afghanistan. Hemphill, a single mother, joined the National Guard in 2008 at the age of 22. She plans to return to Iowa State to finish her degree following her deployment. Hemphill spoke with VISIONS via email about her experiences.
VISIONS: Tell us about your duties in Afghanistan.
Hemphill: I am currently deployed with the 34th Infantry Division 1-168th Red Bulls. I am originally a truck driver, but for this deployment every company had to have a small team of women called a Female Engagement Team, also known as FET. We work with the infantry companies to gain intelligence and work on women’s affairs in Afghanistan. We do a lot of public relations work, but we also get to do our main jobs as well. We go to schools, women’s medical clinics, and village meetings to learn the needs of the women and children and plan projects and classes to help improve living conditions.
You’re a single mom. How old is your son?
I have a 5-year-old son. His name is John, but I call him Bugger.
Where is he living while you’re in Afghanistan?
He is living with his father while I’m away.
What does it feel like to be a mom separated from her child?
There are days when I cry myself to sleep because I miss him so much, but then I remember why I am here. It’s hard to hear about a mother leaving her child to go to war. It sounds horrible and heartless. But really, I feel it’s the most selfless thing a mother could do. Before I left, when I was explaining why I was leaving for Afghanistan, my son looked at me and said, “Mommy, I know you are going to help all the little kids in Afghanistan get to go to school so they can be like me. I don’t want you to leave, but I don’t want you to come home until they go to school.” It was then that I knew I was doing the right thing. I can’t say it was easy, and I can’t say I don’t sometimes regret leaving, but in the end I know it was right.
How often are you able to communicate with your son?
I talk to him on the phone at least once a week, but it is hard to coordinate times with school, my missions, and the time difference. I usually talk to him on the phone, but every couple of weeks we get to Skype, and that is the most amazing thing ever. Being able to see his face and how much he has grown is more than I could ever ask for. We also send letters and packages back and forth. It’s fun to see what crazy stuff a 5-year-old thinks I need. The best Christmas present I ever got was a half-used can of silly string he thought would be fun to spray at my sergeants.
How has Iowa State supported your deployment?
When I found out I was deploying, I talked to my adviser, Dr. Tom Loynachan [professor of agronomy], and several other professors to get a game plan for continuing my education while deployed. I was surprised to find that many professors supported me and offered words of encouragement and best wishes. When I get back, I will be writing a paper for credit on the agriculture in Afghanistan from all the information and pictures I’ve been able to get while on foot patrols and convoys.
Anything else you want to add?
It’s tough being away from family, but this is one experience I will never forget. It changes your outlook on life, family, living conditions, and respect for every soldier out there. I will never be able to hear the National Anthem again without goosebumps and a lump in my throat, and I will never be able to tell everyone how grateful I am for them in my life. Most importantly, I couldn’t do this without the support from my family and friends.
Serving the students who serve
Patrick Murphy already had nine years of active duty and 11 years of full-time National Guard experience when he started taking classes at Iowa State.
“I retired from the military in 2007, and I discovered that to get a decent-paying job I needed a degree,” says Murphy, a senior in industrial technology.
He’s not alone. According to SchoolStatistics.org, the educational benefits provided by the Post 9/11 GI Bill have allowed U.S. veterans to enroll in college classes in record numbers as tuition becomes more affordable than ever before.
At Iowa State, military students as a group are a large, important, and growing constituency, says Michelle Hendricks, director of the Thielen Student Health Center. Hendricks chairs the campus Military Student Task Force, a group convened by Vice President for Student Affairs Thomas Hill.
“More and more of our student pop-ulation has experienced military service,” says Hendricks. “We’ve been a nation at war since 2001, so we have a lot of students with military experience and military-student needs.”
Murphy says that veterans tend to be “more mature than freshmen who come straight out of high school. Most of the vets coming in think, ‘OK, I need this education to get a better job, make more money. They’re inclined to be a little bit more persistent and apply themselves
a little more.”
Maturity, age, and work ethic may separate military students from the general student body, but they also have a different set of needs.
“As an academic adviser, you always worry about what deployment is going to do to a student,” says Tom Loynachan, professor of agronomy. “Most seem to have put it behind them. They are leaders; they’ve been responsible for a team. Some of them have seen active combat.”
Loynachan is the faculty adviser for the ISU Student Veterans of America, a local chapter of a national organization. Murphy is the group’s current president.
“If someone has a problem, another member probably has a solution,” he said. “Any new information that comes out or changes to the GI Bill, we try to get the word out. Generally it’s just a case of learning what kind of problems people have had and finding out how they solved them and keeping that information handy so kids following in our footsteps won’t have those same problems.”
ISU’s Military Student Task Force is also looking at ways to simplify policies and procedures for military students.
“Honestly, there haven’t been frequent problems,” says Autumn Cartegena, an academic adviser for sociology/anthropology and a member of the task force. “But the policies and procedures just hadn’t been scrutinized before. On the academic side, if you only have one military student you may not be familiar with the forms they have to fill out. We need a more comprehensive website, and we need to develop ways of communicating that are more like the military itself, with checklists for pre-deployment and after-deployment. We need to make it as smooth as possible.”
Hendricks says the task force will look at academics, education benefits, and student life.
“Today’s military student is often a member of a Guard or Reserve unit with frequent deployments, so they have interruptions in their student experience,” Hendricks said. “We’re looking at how our military students fare. Do our policies work for them and make ISU more military-student friendly and accommodate their unique needs?”
Hendricks said the task force hopes to present its plan by the end of the summer.
A retired Air Force Reservist, Hendricks is deeply committed to military students. “Military students are a very important constituency to me,” she said. “I want to champion their needs in a way that can be helpful. I have a strong sense of personal desire to be of service to them. They have done so much for this country; we need to ensure that our practices don’t make things more complicated for them.”
Memorial Union lounge honors veterans
The Pride Lounge in the Memorial Union was recently renamed and repurposed as the Col. Pride Veterans’ Lounge. The space was developed in conjunction with the MU Board of Directors, the ISU chapter of the Student Veterans of America, and ISU Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS). It was dedicated in January 2010.
Funding from the GPSS allowed the Memorial Union to purchase furniture, and alumni have donated items including flags, military books, and a display of medals. The MU provided computers.
Col. Harold E. Pride was the first director of the MU and an Army veteran of both World War I and II. Dedicated to “all those who honorably served their country and who were fortunate enough to return to ISU to share their experiences, wisdom, and strength,” the Veterans’ Lounge is open 24 hours a day to all Iowa State students.
MU Director Richard Reynolds said the board hopes to continue to add more resources to the lounge.
Student use of veterans’ benefits on the rise
Iowa State student-veteran numbers are growing.
During the spring semester 2011, 431 students used VA benefits, including those who are dependents of veterans.
“We know that our numbers will be up for fall 2011 (from fall 2010) based on the number of students who have been deployed and the number of students who have inquired about the process to re-enter Iowa State for fall 2011,” said Judy Minnick, assistant registrar.
Students fall into three groups, Minnick explained. There are actual veterans, dependents taking advantage of the Post 9/11 GI Bill that allows transfer of eligibility, and those attending under CH 35: Dependents Educational Assistance.
A university Military Student Task Force is reviewing campus policies and procedures to assist these students.
“We want to be a supportive environment,” said Autumn Cartagena, a member of the task force. “We’re going to be better prepared next year to welcome these students back on campus.”