From left: Veterans Michael Humphrey, Devin Miesmer, Skagway resident David Moncibaiz, David Keel, John Knott and Brad Bunnell. PHOTOS BY ANDREW CREMATA
By DAN FOX
Fledgling Skagway-based non-profit Mission Objective Outdoors (MOO) brought five veterans, all Purple Heart recipients, down from Fairbanks to Skagway for a weekend getaway in mid-September.
The five soldiers weren’t shy to express gratitude for the event, or about what the excursion meant to those dealing with the good – and challenging – aspects of transitioning from military to civilian life.
“Hospitality squared,” one of the five veterans, Brad Bunnell said about their reception by the town.
MOO treasurer Chezare Leipold said a slew of residents and businesses in town stepped forward with some sort of offering to help facilitate the event, from plate-loads of banana bread to donating tour guide time for float trips and hiking excursions. The turnout from Skagway was such that Leipold said MOO plans to try to hold the event again in the future.
“Oh yeah, every year,” she said. “This will be an annual event.”
Over 30 Skagwegians, young and old, were waiting for the veterans to get off the plane, waving flags as they put boots to the local soil.
“When we first came down here we were applauded through the [airport] terminal, it just reminded me of going from my fifth deployment from Iraq,” Bunnell said. “Going through different terminals – you’ve probably seen the commercials on TV – people crying, patting you on the back. You’re like, ‘this is awesome.’ It means something, because it will always stick with us.
“So I get off the plane, and I’m kind of getting out of my nap, and I squint and I’m looking at this terminal, and I see all these people waving these flags, they’re clapping – you feel a little embarrassed, because that chapter for me was closed in 2014.”
From the airport, the quintet of visitors hopped aboard rented scooters and tooled up the Dyea Road. The trip out to the Dyea Flats and back was “outstanding,” veteran John Knott said.
“It was raining too, everybody was having a good time, lights were on, honking the horns – it was perfect man,” Knott said.
The next day, they hiked up a portion of the Chilkoot Trail and floated back down the Taiya River, and on day three the veterans took the train up to Laughton Glacier for a hike. Knott said their tour guide at Laughton broke the ice on a glacial-fed pool for the vets, and the visiting group jumped in the freezing water.
“Gotta stay young,” former U.S. Army pilot David Keel said. “I think every one of us is hurting. We all went back and took a really hot shower.”
Organizing the event was a feat of fundraising by MOO, helped by a solid turnout of Skagway residents for the cause. In MOO’s raffle to raise money for the event, six tickets out of 200 were left over. After subtracting the prizes out of the money raised, $9,400 was left to help fund the event. Different businesses, tour operations and hotels donated services to provide rooms, food and activities for the visiting veterans.
Local BPOE Elks Lodge #431 also assisted MOO with facilitating the event by sponsoring the raffle fundraiser and hosting a banquet for the visiting and all local veterans.
Elks Exalted Ruler Devin “Smokey” Hardy said the local Elks’ main goal in the endeavor was to help MOO with the fundraiser and to lay a foundation so the event could continue in future years.
“We’re all about veterans and kids, that’s the two main goals with the Elks,” Hardy said.
After the Skagway Lodge applied for a grant via the Alaska State Elks Association’s Wounded Veterans Project, the state Elks paid for all the veterans’ travel to and from Skagway. While the state Elks sponsors other similar events in Alaska, this September marked the first time Skagway has hosted such a getaway for veterans.
“It was a really heartwarming experience seeing these guys and the smiles on their faces,” Hardy said.
The entire effort was concocted to show appreciation for the service of United States Veterans. David Moncibaiz and Brian Leipold, MOO president and vice president respectively, are themselves veterans, and wanted to provide a memorable escape for their fellow service men.
“These are all Purple Heart guys, combat injured veterans,” Knott said about himself and the four other visiting vets. “So it means a lot, because it kind of culminates everything we’ve been sacrificing, [what] we almost didn’t have.
“We got to see the world, we’re getting to see our great state now, and being around people who really appreciate and understand the sacrifices that we went through,” Knott said added. “It’s humbling man, it means a lot.”
Camaraderie between brothers-at-arms was an added benefit to the Skagway sightseeing, and some inter-service rivalry made it’s way into the friendly banter between the four U.S. Army veterans and Michael Humphrey, the lone Marine Corps. representative in the Skagway trip.
“They speak a little bit different language, but they need somebody to look up to,” Humphrey said.
That interaction between service members is something to be valued; Keel – who flew Black Hawk helicopters and RC-12s for the Army until 2012 – said transitioning from active duty to a civilian-dominated environment is “kind of hard, to be honest with you.”
“You don’t have anything in common with other people,” Keel said. “We’re not broken, we’re not better, we’re not worse…but it’s just everything from jokes, sense of humor – you guys don’t get it.
“It doesn’t matter what branch, we all have the same [jargon].”
Keel recalled an article he’d read from a journalist embedded with soldiers in Afghanistan. The piece compared modern veterans to the soldiers who fought in World War II, adding that the author “didn’t get it” either.
“You’ve got 20 guys a day committing suicide. Why?” Keel asked. “We don’t have anything in common with anyone. WWII vets came back, they went to work. But what, almost half of the population served in uniform. Not now, it’s less than one percent. So we step out in to the world, they [civilians] have no idea.”
Knott said Fairbanks is a “phenomenal” place with lots of veteran organizations, but said that the transition was “tough at first.”
“I’ve been out a couple years now, and you kind of wonder who’s in charge when you get out because you’re so used to it,” Knott said.
Through the different organizations in Fairbanks, Army Veteran Devin Miesmer said most of the visiting five already knew each other before the trip – but traveling to Skagway was a new experience for most of them.
“I grew up in a small town, so it [Skagway] kind of felt like home real quick,” Miesmer said. “It felt good, it put a smile on your face.”
“I’m a single dad, two kids, I don’t get these opportunities,” he added.
Veterans deal with different things as they transition into civilian life, Miesmer said, some of them internal, some with family, friends or relations as they come back home.
“To just overall get you away from all that and have a good time, meet great people that don’t care that they don’t know you, they treat you like family,” Miesmer said. “This is awesome, it’s a great honor.”
All of the visiting veterans mentioned their appreciation for the warm welcome to Skagway, with some commenting that it was humbling to get such a reception, though such warm receptions for service men and women were not always the norm in the United States.
“It started happening after the first Gulf War, [we] came back from that, that’s when things started to change, it seemed,” Keel said. “The deployments, 9/11 – people started thanking you. Probably one of the most humbling things was when a WWII vet came up to me in uniform, I was in uniform, he’s got his hat on so I knew he was a WWII vet, and thanked me.
“I was like, ‘dude, no, thank you!’”
Public attitude towards veterans has been a shifting beast over the last century. Skagway resident and Vietnam War veteran Mike O’Daniel said the Global War on Terror is a “little more popular war than ours.”
“Here it was a lot easier,” O’Daniel said about returning from Vietnam. “Down south it wasn’t. I mean, when you came through SEA-TAC a lot of times you tried to get into your civilian clothes as fast as you could so people didn’t see your uniform…here [in Skagway] it was altogether different.”
Making his own shift from the armed forces to civilian life in Skagway wasn’t “a big thing,” O’Daniel said; for one reason, he said a very high percentage of older men in town were already veterans from WWII and the Korean War.
“It wasn’t a big transition, I came back and was married, kids and life jumps in and you hang on for dear life trying to get caught up,” O’Daniel said. “There were guys that had problems with it and stuff, but I never seemed to.”
Skagwegian Si Dennis served in the Army from 1967-1970 – a year of that was spent in Vietnam. Dennis said “it wasn’t too bad” when he returned to Skagway in 1970, and that it was the right move for him, but exiting military life was kind of “disheartening.”
“I came into Oakland and I had my dress greens on, all that, walking to my next flight, and there was a lady and a daughter walking,” Dennis said. “I heard her ask her mom if ‘that was one of the baby killers.’
“And after that I couldn’t talk about where I was, to anybody. As soon as you said ‘Nam,’ they quit.”
While dealing with public opinion on the Vietnam War was “rough,” Dennis said a few Skagway friends of his had gone over to war as well, but added that they never talked about it either. Dennis said he’d only told his dad, mom and wife what he’d been through.
“After I got back here, what I’d went through down in the states, I just didn’t really want to tell anybody,” Dennis said. “If they asked, I would tell them, but it took a while.”
Dennis said the engagements in the Middle East are a different kind of war, compared to what he experienced.
“Afghanistan, Iraq, them guys went through a lot of stuff,” Dennis said. “And coming back, they got more glory than we did, but it didn’t make any difference to me, they were still in a war where they didn’t want to be, some of them.
“I’ve got an awful lot of respect for them.”
O’Daniel said he’ll connect every so often with the new crop of active Skagway soldiers and veterans – the Elks hosts a Veterans’ Dinner every year for all the service men and women in town, and puts on a Flag Day event featuring vets during the summer as well. Beyond that, O’Daniel said veterans just connect through the normal channels – coffee or running into each other around town.
“I always respect people that have bitten it off and gone in and done it,” O’Daniel said. “It’s like one of those things, glad you don’t have to do it again, glad you got it done.”