For Eastern Iowa's war veterans, 'it's our time to take care of you'
CEDAR RAPIDS — At 91, World War II veteran Douglas Shaheen could have gone on a previous Honor Flight but he would not leave the side of his wife of 68 years, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease.
Mamie Shaheen died in December 2014 and Tuesday, her husband and youngest daughter are flying to Washington, D.C., with the Eastern Iowa Honor Flight, which helps veterans see the memorials recognizing their service.
“It’s not only an honor for me, but it’s an honor for the other soldiers and men who died in the war,” said Shaheen, of Cedar Rapids.
The Eastern Iowa Honor Flight has flown more than 2,000 veterans on day trips to Washington since 2009.
Tuesday’s flight, scheduled to leave The Eastern Iowa Airport at 6:30 a.m. and return about 10 p.m., will take 78 veterans and their guardians to see memorials to World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam, among others. Veterans also will lay wreaths in Arlington National Cemetery and take a city bus tour.
“You’ve taken care of us for so long,” said Allen Stekl, the organization’s vice president. “It’s our time to take care of you.”
The Gazette is a sponsor of this flight, which is free for veterans.
Shaheen’s war memories, like those from other parts of his life, are fading. But he remembers finding himself in a foxhole behind enemy lines in the Rhineland region of western Germany with two fellow scouts.
“The combat was tremendous at that time,” he said. “We got shelled and the other two men were wounded in action.”
Shaheen’s daughter, Jan Overland, nudges his thoughts.
“You had to carry them, didn’t you, Dad?” she asked. He nodded.
“He had to carry them one at a time in the dark,” Overland said.
Shaheen never knew if those soldiers survived, but he was given two Bronze Stars for heroic action in combat.
Shaheen left active duty in April 1946, after helping liberate the Dachau concentration camp a year earlier. He served in the reserves until 1949 and then joined the Iowa National Guard, where he retired in 1964 with a rank of major.
Tom Reinier, 69, of Iowa City, downplays his service in the Vietnam War, describing days of fighting in the humid central highlands of Vietnam with short phrases like “we got in some engagement.”
One of those days, Jan. 17, 1968, his unit was dropped by helicopter into an area full of trees.
“We were standing there and the other guys started shooting,” he said.
Viet Cong fighters jumped into a tunnel and Reinier followed. He killed six Viet Cong before pulling two injured Vietnamese nurses from the hole and getting them to safety.
“I went to the next hole, a woman and three kids came out of that,” he said. “I covered the kids up so they wouldn’t get shot.”
For his efforts that day, Reinier received the Silver Star. “Private First Class Reinier’s outstanding courage, outstanding performance and exemplary devotion to duty are in keeping with the higher traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army,” the government wrote.
When Reinier visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Tuesday, he hopes to find the name of an Italian-American soldier, a Philadelphia man they nicknamed Hot Shot, who was killed about a month into their deployment.
“He was only 5 foot and a half but more dynamite than anyone else I knew,” Reinier said.
Reinier, who worked as a button maker, tire manufacturer and janitor after his military service, spends most of his free time now collecting toiletries, clothing and other goods for the needy in southeastern Iowa. He was dubbed “Uncle Tom” by Amish children who welcomed his gifts of school supplies and thick socks.
Richard McKeen, an Iowa City veteran who celebrates his 83rd birthday Tuesday, learned much of what made him a successful businessman and community servant from the men he served with in Korea.
There was the hard-as-nails battalion chief who, upon hearing McKeen was a conscientious clerk, told him “tomorrow, you’re mine.” There was the 37-year-old major, who as a former college gymnast, beat all the younger men at the physical fitness tests. And then were was the mail clerk who became a lifelong friend.
“One of the best things that could happen to the youth of America is a six-month military training,” McKeen said. “You learn discipline and respect. It helped me tremendously.”
The Realtor who is an active supporter of Cornell College will visit the Korean War Veterans Memorial for the first time Tuesday. He is one of several veterans chosen to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.