Meet a few Saints family members who are also proud veterans of the U.S. armed forces.
On Veteran’s Day, SCCC Trustee John Engel looks back
Six-year stint took him to Vietnam, Indian Ocean, and a golf course or two
In many stories about veterans of the United States – Vietnam war, compulsory military service is the great disrupter that tears a hole in the service member’s life. That’s not the case for Seward County Community College trustee John Engel, whose six-year stint in the United States Navy served as a foundational and largely positive force in his life.
When he reflects on his time at sea and on shore, Engel recalls camaraderie, purpose, and a strong sense of patriotism that he traces back to his childhood in Liberal. An avid member of the Lions Club Boy Scout Troop, Engel recalls a local culture that supported the Boy Scouts’ God & Country Program with an enthusiasm unparalleled in the state of Kansas.
“We stood out in the nation, with Boy Scout troops attached to the Lions, the Rotary Club, and several churches,” he said. “It was something people in Liberal prided themselves on.”
Thus, when Engel’s lottery number 96 was pulled by the draft board in April 1970, a mere month before he graduated from Fort Hays State University, he didn’t receive the news with dismay.
“They were kind enough to wait until I graduated,” Engel recalls. “But I knew I was headed for Vietnam. I had received a deferment until then because of being in college — I was lucky, and I knew it.” The idea of trying to duck out of the draft never crossed the young patriot’s mind, “but I couldn’t see any purpose to shooting a gun and fighting and then coming out of the war at the end without having a future,” he said. He opted to join the Navy rather than ground forces like the Army or Marines.
Engel also chose to work in advanced electronics, a specialization that required a six-year enlistment. He graduated from college, asked his college sweetheart Kathy to marry him, took a summer job at the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy outside Sacramento, Calif., traveled back to Kansas for his wedding day Sept. 19, 1970, then headed to boot camp on Oct. 15.
By January, he had graduated and the young couple settled in San Diego while he completed the 46-week electronics training school. When he was assigned to the USS Hanson, deploying to the Pacific in June 1972, he recalled “it was the later stages of the Vietnam war.”
Engel was assigned temporary duty firing five-inch, 38-caliber weapons from the aft (rear) end of the ship. Starting in the magazine, two decks below the gun, he worked his way up, loading a carousel with bullets and powder canisters, to the gun mount of the 1944 vessel.
“Everything was done manually,” he said. “When we arrived in Vietnamese waters, we went on the gun line. During the night, three ships would go perpendicular to the shore, up in North Vietnam, make a left turn, fire four rounds at four targets, get away from the shore. In the aft, we would receive counter fire, and we fired back at them as we retreated.”
In more than 50 of these missions, Engel said his ship was hit twice by enemy fire. At the time, he felt surprised to realize that “what we were doing was a little dangerous.” When Engel received one of six letters of commendation awarded by the ship’s captain for the overall operation, he said he was filled with unexpected pride.
The Hanson also provided guard cover for the USS Midway aircraft carrier, serving as a kind of landing route guide and occasional rescue service.
Engel’s seven-month cruise included stops in Hong Kong and Japan, where his preferred “R&R” activity was golf. A cruise on the USS Somers in 1973 took him to the Indian Ocean, deploying out of Hawaii, and spending R&R in Karachi, Pakistan. Though the ship’s primary mission was connected to the developing oil crisis, Engel recalled an event where the crew put on dress whites and manned the rails for a visit by the Shah of Iran.
After the first deployment when she kept Engel’s parents company and switched from a nurse aide position at the hospital to the bookkeeping department at People’s Bank of Liberal, Kathy stayed wherever her husband was based. During the Hawaii deployment, he said, “the very first mail call after we shipped out, I got a letter from Kathy saying, ‘I’m pregnant.’”
As it turned out, “the ship got back to Pearl Harbor and I got to be home when Deanna was born in 1974.”
Over the next two years, Engel was able to compete in fleet golf tournaments in Guam and Pearl Harbor, culminating in the All-Navy Championship finals in Virginia Beach. With two weeks left in his service time, Engel was assigned to the Naval Air Station near Dallas, where he and his wife took in the Texas State Fair, the OU-Texas football game, Six Flags Over Texas, and pondered their next chapter as a family.
Although professional golf beckoned, Engel said the life of a golf pro involved too much time away from home in an environment that demanded socializing and beer-drinking. Family, he decided, held a far greater appeal.
The Engels returned to Liberal, where John’s grandfather had settled in 1911 as a broom corn buyer, and where his own father was ready to retire from Engel Oil. The couple welcomed a second daughter, Shari, in 1980.
“I took over full operation of the business in 1981,” Engel said. “I still love golf, but it’s something I play for relaxation, not my vocation.”
A trip to Washington, D.C. in 2019 with the Kansas Honor Flight brought back a flood of memories from Engel’s years in service. Traveling with one veteran of World War II, two from Korea, and 30 peers who’d fought in Vietnam, Engel viewed all the military memorials in the capitol, culminating with changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery, where the group laid a wreath. At the Vietnam memorial, Engel located the names of all 13 veterans from Seward County, who are also listed on a plaque at the Seward County Courthouse. He photographed each, including that of John Love, cousin of fellow Rotarian, veteran and local resident Ivanhoe Love, Jr.
The experience filled Engel with a complicated mixture of emotions.
“They were all born within 12 months of when I was born, and I knew several of them,” he said. “Alan Bradford was in the trombone section with me at the high school.”
Decades on, he said he sometimes wonders what resulted from the ammunition he fired on those 56 missions.
“The target was 12 to 17 miles away, and I didn’t see the results of where that bullet landed,” he said. “You look back and say, ‘I was firing to support our troops,’ but you know that you don’t control the outcome. Ivanhoe and his cousin — their experiences in the war were different than mine,” he said.
While he did not see on-the-ground action that scarred so many, Engel recalls vividly the lukewarm and sometimes hostile return Stateside after serving in Vietnam. It wasn’t a sense of shame that he felt when people called veterans murderers, but “knowing that so many thought we shouldn’t be there, when we had served and many died — well, we didn’t get our welcome home like most war vets did.”
When the Kansas Honor Flight plane landed in Wichita, the veterans were met by the Air Force, a crowd of 250 people including bagpipe players, cheers and gratitude.
“It made me cry,” he said.
At the end of tumultuous election year that “did not go the way I hoped,” Engel says he believes in a strong military, no matter who sits as President in the Oval Office.
“The Korean memorial has the epitaph that says, ‘Freedom is not free,’ and that is how I feel,” he said. “I applaud every veteran that’s ever served. This world — I wish it was more peaceful. There’s jealousy, people don’t respect each other, everyone has different ideas of how the world works.”
In Engel’s mind, a two-year program of mandatory national service for all 18 year-olds would solve many of the problems.
“Whether it’s Peace Corps, national service, military service doesn’t matter, but it would benefit the country to have them outside the country for six months,” he said. “National service would give them a better view of what’s good about America. We’re not perfect, but we are the best on earth.”
Read a powerful personal memoir
Ed Poley is a former SCCC team member and college friend, a U.S. Army Veteran and a retired officer in the Kansas Army National Guard. Click this link to view a short interview with Ed.
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Be your own hero!
The pandemic has stretched the limits of our social response networks. The plus side? People have stepped up to the challenge. The tough part? Stress like this takes a toll, and we are all processing trauma more than ever before. Southwest Guidance Center therapist and military veteran Brian Rixon offers practical tips for first responders and anyone who’s struggling to take care of themselves.
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We would love to see veterans and first responders on campus for a noonday cookout like we have hosted in the past.
Since we can’t be together, here’s a giant “thank you” from our Saints family!
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