`Your liberty doesn’t come free’
Veterans Russ Viele and Joe Kaspar know what war feels like.
Viele, 70, enlisted at the age of 20 in 1952, and fought in the Korean Conflict.
Kaspar, 82, was 21 when he enlisted in September 1941 – just a few months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
Although both men fought at different times and for different reasons, they agree on one thing.
“War is hell,” said Viele, shaking his head.
“That’s right,” agreed Kaspar quietly.
The two vets live at the Colorado State Veterans Nursing Home in Rifle. They spent last Friday at the downtown Rifle home of Jill Ulrych, eating lunch, watching movies – and talking.
The men are strikingly frank and matter-of-fact about their lives – and their experiences in the U.S. military. Like many in their generation, they view war as part of keeping peace and maintaining freedom. Without question, they see their service as a duty and an obligation as American citizens.
Ulrych developed a strong friendship with the two after a friend of hers, former Marine Rick Buesch, committed suicide in Aspen on Jan. 10, 2001.
“It wasn’t long after we lost Rick that I hooked up with these guys,” she said. “I was driving by the veterans home one day and I saw a P.O.W. flag. It got me thinking about getting to know some of the local vets.”
Now Ulrych visits the guys on a regular basis, and brings them over to her house occasionally.
“I started doing this because I wanted to give something back,” Ulrych said. “But what I’ve gotten in return is so much more.”
“You’re the best, kiddo,” said Kaspar, looking at Ulrych with a smile.
Joe Kaspar wasn’t drafted to serve in the Air Force. He volunteered.
“I wanted to make sure I got into the Air Force,” he said of his four-year stint, from 1941-45, “so I enlisted before they had a chance to draft me.”
Originally from Pennsylvania, Kaspar did his basic training at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, Calif., and received further training in Missouri. In Illinois, Kaspar attended aircraft mechanics school, where he was pegged as an instructor.
“I taught hydraulics in Illinois and was transferred to North Carolina where I was an assistant senior instructor,” Kaspar said. “But I wanted out of teaching. I wanted to go overseas.”
After attending gunnery school in Florida and Louisiana, Kaspar finally got his wish. A staff sergeant in 1944, Kaspar shipped out to Sardinia and Corsica, Italy. Kaspar was a gunner, and conducted bombing raids with B26 bombers at Brenner Pass on the northern Italian and Austrian border.
“We couldn’t get much over 10,000 feet with those B26s,” he said. “The Germans knew this. They’d get on top of us and shoot down on us. The Germans shot the heck out of our squadron.”
Kaspar had his own way of dealing with death.
“I had friends shot down and friends on ships that went down,” he said. “So when we were on missions, I wouldn’t think about it. I’d just figure there were less people for us to fight.”
After Italy, Kaspar fought in Dijon, France, on the southern front, helping the French hold back the advancing Germans.
Kaspar was already back home in Belmont Shores in Long Beach, Calif., on V-Day.
“I remember seeing the sailor kissing the girl on TV,” he said. “It didn’t mean an awful lot to me, because my part in it was already done.”
After the war, Kaspar married and had a son. He raised the boy on his own when the marriage didn’t work out.
He said the war didn’t change him that much.
“I was glad to go over and fight,” he said.
Based on his military training, Kaspar went back to mechanics school. He worked for more than 30 years in Van Nuys, Calif., building guidance rocket engines for NASA’s Apollo and space shuttle missions.
“I’m thankful for what I learned in the military,” he said. “If I hadn’t had that training, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Like Kaspar, Russ Viele also volunteered.
“My two brothers had been drafted to serve in Korea,” Viele said. “I wanted a choice of where I was going to serve.”
Viele, who’s a native Coloradan, chose the Marine Corps.
“You know, the Marines is where they separate the men from the boys,” said the former Marine sergeant with a smile. “I liked the discipline of the Marines.”
Viele completed boot camp in San Diego, and received advanced combat training at Camp Pendleton. He attended gas and diesel mechanic school in North Carolina. And since he had the highest G.P.A. in his class, he was allowed to choose where he was stationed.
“I picked wrong,” he said. “Because I didn’t know any better, I picked a base in California. I didn’t realize it was in Death Valley.”
Viele spent 15 months in the desert, where temperatures would reach as high as 120 degrees.
“I was ready to be shipped out,” he said. In 1953, he was sent to Japan to back up the First Marine Division’s howitzers. By then, the armistice agreement for the Korean conflict had been signed, but U.S. troops were stationed in Japan for 14 months to monitor the region.
“Korea was undeclared,” Viele said of the conflict, “but war is still war.”
Viele said his experience in the Marines and in Japan changed him.
“It sure did,” he said. “I learned to observe people around me. I paid more attention to their emotions and what they said.”
It gave him another valuable boost in life.
“I could never afford the education I received had I not joined the Marines,” he said.
After Korea, Viele married, had three children, and owned and operated a heavy equipment company. He lived on his own in Yampa until two years ago, when his son and daughter-in-law told him about the veterans’ nursing home in Rifle and he agreed to live there.
The long view
Neither Kaspar or Viele are in favor of war, but they have firm views about the United States’ current situation with Iraq.
“I’m not pro-war,” said Kaspar, “but we have to do it. We have to go over whether we want to or not.”
“We should go,” agreed Viele. “(Saddam) Hussein has secrets he can use against us.”
Both remember living in a time when another political leader threatened America – and the world.
“Hitler took over Germany in ’32,” said Kaspar. “We had to get rid of him. And we knew if got rid of him, we had to get rid of all of his generals by defeating Germany. Hussein can strike at any time, anywhere.”
Kaspar and Viele see this Veterans Day in particular as a wake-up call for the country.
“We need to wise up the younger generation,” said Kaspar. “Your liberty doesn’t come free. It takes lives.”
The two vets said they have seen a change in people’s recognition and respect of them.
“Since Sept. 11,” Kaspar said, “we’re getting respect.”
“Before Sept. 11, I don’t think people realized that our freedom comes at a price,” said Viele. “That’s all changed now.”
In the meantime, the two friends are happy to be living in adjoining rooms at the veterans’ home, and are proud to be American veterans.
“Once a Marine, always a Marine,” Viele said with a wink.
“I’m really glad for my time in the service,” said Kaspar. “And I’m glad to be a veteran now.”
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