Military service is the repository of some of our greatest hopes — for honor, for glory, to do some lasting service.
The veteran is one who has given himself to that service, surrendered herself to that hope, and it is for that sacrifice we have Veterans Day every Nov. 11.
The theater company I direct, Ratatat Theater Group, and I are dedicated to creating original plays based on local stories, and we are at work on a new play called Happy Few, which will be based on the stories of Santa Barbara veterans.
The play will be premiering next year, but we wanted to share some of these stories on this Veterans Day, and Noozhawk has agreed to partner with us.
Below you will find profiles of a few of this community’s many veterans. Lara Cooper, a Noozhawk photojournalist, has provided the portraits.
Over a period of several months, I sat down with each of them, and was honored to hear their stories one by one.
They were honest. The military is a repository of some of our greatest hopes, and some of their hopes were dashed. They all experienced tragedy. They all saw flashes of glory.
These are their stories. They deserve to be remembered.
Click here to view a gallery of Lara Cooper’s photos.
• • •
John Blankenship’s goal in life is to ensure that veterans’ stories are remembered.
A pilot during the Vietnam War, he didn’t want much to do with war when his tour first ended. But over the years, that changed.
He slowly gained appreciation for the stories and the sacrifices of the men and women who served, and saw a real lack of monuments and memorials in Santa Barbara, where people could go and reflect on the past.
So he started organizing veterans events, and together with others began to work on creating the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Museum, a yet-unrealized vision of a memorial for Santa Barbara’s many veterans. You can probably see him at work at every veterans event this weekend.
“I’m wanting to make these guys feel that what they did was significant,” he said. “We lose so much. I think that every warrior wants to be not some footnote in history, they want to feel like what they did was significant.
“Not the fact that they were a hero, and they got a Silver Star or a Purple Heart or whatever, but the fact that their service is honored by their country.
“I’m trying to create a place where those men can take their families, and they can talk about their medals, and people can see a picture and say, ‘There’s my granddaddy.’ So that’s what I want for these guys. I think we all have that desire, to say we’ve accomplished something in life.”
• • •
You could say Hap Desimone’s Vietnam story began at church. He was a counselor at the Methodist Youth Fellowship in Hacienda Heights in 1968, and every Sunday night they would get together, and then the kids would get in their cars and go home.
But eventually, instead of leaving, they would all just sit on the roofs of their cars and talk.
“And that night I looked at the faces of these guys in the moonlight, and they’re 16 and I’m 18, and I thought to myself, ‘These guys are going to go to Vietnam unless I do,’” he said. “The Sword of Damocles, this draft is hanging over us, and I was going to school just to stay out of the draft. I had no direction in my life. And I figured, ‘I don’t mind going. I don’t care.’ So I went and signed up.”
So he went to Vietnam, as a radio operator. The Army taught him his job in four words: “Get the message through.” And he did.
He stood on the top of a hill in full view of a mortar team, calling in a medivac. He lost most of his hearing listening to the radio with the squelch circuit rolled all the way off, so he could hear even the weakest cry for help.
“It wasn’t part of my job to argue the veracity of the war, the need for the war,” he said. “My job was, here’s an opportunity, to do the absolutely screaming best that I can do, in the job that I’ve been trained to do. If there’s a guy that needs something, my job was, ‘Get the message through.’”
Everything else? That’s a matter of faith.
• • •
When Victor Orta got back from Iraq in 2006, he tried forgetting. But the war “was everywhere;” there was always something to remind him.
“So I finally just got it tattooed on me,” he said. “So now in the mornings when I get up, I take a look at it. It reminds me, I can play through it, and I go on with the rest of my day.
“We did so much stuff out there. I don’t even know how to describe it. And you’re hoping it’s right. I still don’t know why we were there. I’m still confused.”
Orta compared searching for the meaning of his time in Iraq to searching for the Holy Grail: an ideal, always elusive.
But “one thing that’ll pull you through is remembering the good times that you had with your buddies out there,” he said. “The cohesion that we had ... it’s like no other. These are my boys. I loved the Army, dude. You forget the politics, you forget everything that went with it. You just shared this crazy experience and you came back with it.
“It’s a part of the person, a part of the soldier. It doesn’t go away. It stays with you.”
Hear Victor talk about his tattoo and his memories:
• • •
Lee Schmedes could have been killed a hundred times.
He could have been killed when his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine, four months after he enlisted.
He could have been killed when he mistimed his jump abandoning ship, and fell dozens of feet onto the rescue boat.
Instead, he just crushed his leg, and was sent to the hospital.
He could have been killed at the D-Day invasion, which is where his ship was going before it was torpedoed, though he didn’t know that until he saw the wounded men being wheeled into the hospital.
He could have been killed at the invasion of Okinawa, when more than 100 kamikaze planes attacked them, exploding all around them.
But he wasn’t. He has the memories instead.
“We were there (in Okinawa) about two and a half days, and something like a 135 Japanese kamikaze planes attacked us,” he said. “And one of them dove right into the bridge of the ship next to us. And we shot down a number of them.
“And when I see it on TV, it’s like I can’t believe, the kamikazes diving into the ships, the planes exploding into the air, and I was right there. It’s just — it seems like a dream. It seems unreal.
“When I look at it now, I kind of think, ‘I really was there, I recognize that.’ But it’s, I don’t know how to explain it, it’s something that scares you to death, and puts a lump in your throat, and you’re angry at the enemy, too, so you’re doing the best to knock them out of the sky.
“And you’re so busy, doing what we’re told to do, you didn’t have time to dwell on it.
“And that’s a good thing about the military. You have to obey orders. The people that are making the orders might make mistakes, but you have to follow orders, and that’s the secret of success. And we wanted to because we loved the country you know and we wanted to do our best.
“I’d do it all over again.”
You can hear Lee tell the story himself here:
• • •
Dan Seidenberg didn’t want to go to Vietnam.
He was a Santa Barbara kid — going to Santa Barbara City College in 1967, and surfing most of the rest of the time.
“I just wanted to get educated, surf my brains out, have tons of fun, and not think about war, or weapons, or dying, or ... moral issues, you know, the whole list of stuff that hits you once you’re in the Army,” he said.
But he got a draft notice from the Santa Barbara Draft Board. He was sent to the 199th Light Infantry, near Saigon. Every day was a dreary, muddy, scary routine.
“It’s completely out of anything ordinary that you’ve ever experienced,” Seidenberg said. “It’s just so shocking, and saddening, and frightening, you know? I never could imagine that people could do that to each other, just blow the crap out of each other; there’s just little bits and pieces left.”
One day on the river, his boat got hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, and a piece of the grenade went through his helmet and lodged in his temple. He had extensive surgery and treatment, for years.
He said he still has massive headaches and seizures — weekly. He is unable to work any kind of steady job.
“War sounds like an adventure,” he said. “The reality of it is that it’s horrible.”
Hear Dan talk about a typical day in the field here:
• • •
“I came from poverty, my mother was a shoe clerk,” he said. Before the war, “I was just sort of drifting along” — working in a factory, screwing together switchboards.
But Crandell said the war “probably changed my life, in the sense that it changed my self-image. I thought the gold bars were this big! The silver wings!” — he said, laughing, and gesturing with his arms to show his insignia stretching past his shoulders.
As First Lt. Larry Crandell, he went to college on the GI Bill, became an executive in New York City, and now is one of the best-known and best-loved figures in Santa Barbara.
For Crandell, every experience is an opportunity for a joke.
His plane crash-landing in the Adriatic Sea, which earned him a Purple Heart? All that serves to land a punch line about his “Immaculate Infection.”
His “worst military experience by far?”
The time a girl screamed at him for getting too fresh, and he had to flee without his garrison cap.
Hear Larry tell that story here:
But the war was not a joke.
“I’ve never forgotten when I feel a little belligerent internationally how many young people never got to be fathers,” Crandell said. “Never got to, do much.”
He confessed it made him question God.
But jokes are what get us through. Nearly every veteran interviewed for this project mentioned how humor kept him or her sane. And it’s getting Crandell through now.
“I’m very time-conscious now that I’m seven months from 90,” he said. “I had no idea I’d last this long. I would have taken better care of myself! I have neuropic feet. I’m Type-2 diabetic. I take a handful of pills every day. But I get up in the morning, and I can drive, and I work out.
“And my body weight is now the same as it was in the military.”
And then with a wink, “It’s been redistributed.”
• • •
Wilson Hubbell has a story he just can’t forget.
He was a flight engineer on a CH47 helicopter in Vietnam, and this particular day they were out picking up some troops from an artillery unit, to move them elsewhere.
“And then all of a sudden we hear this explosion, boom, really close by,” he said. “The base was being attacked.”
The Viet Cong had infiltrated the artillery unit, and were blowing up the ammunition, which was everywhere. The helicopter pilots sprang into action, and managed to get them away from the explosions.
“We gained altitude and came back over to see what’s going on,” Hubbell said. “And there was a group of soldiers that were trapped between the explosions and all of this concertina wire. They were just getting chewed up. The explosions were so close.
“But they could see us up there, and they were waving, ‘Help. Come get us.’ And we couldn’t, we couldn’t, we couldn’t do it. I mean, we would have lost the helicopter — we couldn’t get them. And then we flew away.”
Years later, Hubbell went back to Vietnam.
“My wife and I went back there and we did a bike trip from Hanoi to Saigon. It’s 2,000 kilometers, it’s a long bike trip,” he said. “I wasn’t sure I would recognize the place because so much had changed. But I could recognize the outline of the mountains, and I knew exactly where we were.
“I carried a shoulder patch with me, from the helicopter unit. And there was a tree growing in the site of where all of this happened. I left the shoulder patch in the tree.
“We left those guys, we couldn’t get to them, and we flew away, and we didn’t come back. I came back. I couldn’t do anything, but just remember what I had seen, and what happened to them. And that I had not forgotten.”
• • •
Ashley Smith went into the Navy hoping for something more. She was in college in 2004, feeling uncertain about her future and confined by the expectations surrounding her, and “I wanted to get out.”
So she enlisted in the Navy.
“I was really naive and very young, and I wanted to get out and see the world,” she said. “My expectations, well, they weren’t great, but I was hoping to find something. Something meaningful, I suppose.
“I think everybody who goes to the service, it’s just kind of ingrained in us. You expect to better your life, you expect to find something meaningful.”
In boot camp, they drilled them in the Navy’s core values: honor, courage, commitment. And “it worked. It brought out those emotions, that I suppose everybody feels,” Smith said.
At this point in the interview, she started to cry.
“It became apparent pretty quick that that’s not what it was about,” she said.
Smith was made a radio technician on a ship, and she spent her time doing “a lot of nothing.”
“It was literally like you sitting at a desk waiting for something to happen,” she said. “The meals sucked. My chief was a hard-***. And I worked every day. Seven days a week, 12-hour shifts. And I usually got the night shift. So really just a lot of nothing. I wasn’t prepared for that.
“It was a betrayal, I suppose. I mean I kind of knew it wasn’t going to be the greatest thing for me. That it would be hard. But I did it anyway. But I wanted it to be something meaningful.”
Today, Smith is back in school, getting her bachelor of arts degree in anthropology. She calls it “a worthless BA,” but “still really interesting.”
As for the future? “I want to go to graduate school and get maybe my master’s in library science. It seems like a pretty chill job. That’s really all I want, you know? Something a little stress-free, a good, steady paycheck. Maybe a baby or two?
“I don’t really hope for great things anymore. But isn’t that reality, though? For most, I think that’s a part of growing up.”
• • •
Raymond Morua didn’t know what to do with himself when he got back from Iraq.
His family had a welcome-home barbecue for him, and everyone was there.
But “I woke up in the morning, and I remember freaking out because my rifle wasn’t there, and then I realized I was back home,” he said. “I walked out of my room, and the house was empty. No one was there. And I was just, like, what do I do?”
He floundered for a long time. He lived off his Army bonus for several months, bar-hopping and traveling. He tried construction work, but he got fired. He finally decided to just take the GI Bill and go to UC Santa Barbara. And there he slowly got his footing.
The classes, and the writing he did for them, helped him make sense of things. After school, he got a job he likes a lot more.
These days, Morua wakes up in the morning with a different feeling. Whether he’s chairing the board of Future Leaders of America, or running his nonprofit, At Ease!, which provides social activities and service opportunities for veterans, he goes to bed knowing that “tomorrow’s another battle.”
For as he says, “Just because you’re done with the military doesn’t mean your service to your country’s done. Just because you don’t have a rifle in your hand and you don’t have a uniform doesn’t mean you can’t go out on the streets and still kick butt.”
Hear Raymond speak in his own words here:
• • •
Arthur Petersen has a tree growing in Belgium.
He has a lot of hard memories from the war.
In the Battle of the Bulge, he struggled through in the snow with no food, no proper clothing.
“All of the sudden, I guess the Germans shot a gun, and we hit the ground, and my buddy he starts groaning, groaning, and I saw that he got hit, all his guts were out,” he said. “I took my belt and I put my gunny sack around him and try to push everything in, and tie the belt tied around his stomach.”
He saved his friend’s life that day.
Hear Arthur tell the story himself here:
Petersen knows what it is to face death.
“When you see your buddy lying down, even if he’s not dead, with a missing leg, or blown-up arm, you say maybe next time it’s my turn,” he said.
When he came back, he took up smoking, just “to hold something in my hand” to keep them from shaking.
But now Petersen has a tree growing in Belgium. In Bastogne, for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, they planted a tree for every veteran who returned for the memorial — 4,000 of them.
When he visited in 1994, it was a sapling at his feet. The last time he went, with his family around him, he had to crane his neck to see it.
As for the memorial, Petersen said, “It’s a forest now.”
— Casey Caldwell is a director, actor and playwright, and the artistic director of Ratatat Theater Group. Since 2008, Ratatat has been dedicated to creating innovative, community-oriented original work. All of the stories recorded here are part of the group’s latest play in development, Happy Few, which will combine two sources of material — Shakespeare’s Henry V and the stories of veterans from Santa Barbara — to create an original play exploring issues of patriotism, purpose, and what is worth fighting for in our country today.