By Teri L. Hansen
MCPHERSON – The McPherson American Legion Post 24 lounge was packed with people during the monthly Veterans’ Story Night on Tuesday evening. Guests were treated to the tales of hardship, sacrifice, and even a little fun, from three local veterans.
Alan Hansen was in Navy boot camp when World War II was coming to an end. While he humbly acknowledged that he didn’t see combat during that conflict, his service and sacrifice are still revered. Recently, that service was rewarded with a trip to Washington DC through the Honor Flight. These flights are sponsored by the Honor Flight Network, a national organization that works hard to fund trips for veterans to see the memorials dedicated in memory of the country’s conflicts. To date, the non-profit has sent over 200,000 veterans to the nation’s capital.
“Our group was comprised of four World War II, 10 Korean and 20 Vietnam vets, plus guardians and flight leaders for a total of 66,” Hansen explained.
For years Hansen’s family pushed for him to apply for the trip. His wife’s declining health kept him from pursuing honor. However, in July he did apply and was accepted for the September trip.
“I have to thank them for urging me to apply,” Hansen said. “World War II veterans are given priority due to dwindling numbers.”
On the first day, the group visited Fort McHenry, made famous by Francis Scott Key, as it was here that he penned the “Star-Spangled Banner.” They also enjoyed a lunch at Mission BBQ, a restaurant that celebrates the nation’s heroes. It opened on Sept. 11, 2011, and has been serving, hiring and honoring the armed forces and first responders of the country ever since.
On day two, the group fulfilled their purpose by visiting the various memorials to include the Navy and Air Force memorials, the National Archives, the World War II, Lincoln, Korean, and Vietnam memorials, Arlington National Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Memorial. It was at the World War II memorial that the vets received a surprise visit. Former Senator Bob Dole has been known to frequent the area in an effort to meet the veterans on Honor Flights and that was where they met the fellow Kansan.
Honor Flight trips are a quick turn around and so the next day they flew home to one more surprise. At the airport, they were greeted by an Honor Guard, music, applause and the hero’s return that many weren’t afforded once upon a time.
“It would have been worth the trip just for the welcome home,” Hansen said.
The Honor Flight Network needs volunteers and funds for the trips they provide. To get involved visit https://kansashonorflight.org/. Another way to help is through recycling. Can stations with Honor Flight signs are set up throughout local communities. Warren Vincent of McPherson takes them to Midwest Iron & Metal in Hutchinson for recycling and donates the funds to the Honor Flight.
When most high schoolers are worrying about finals, the big game, and their boyfriends or girlfriends, Landon Wall was in a recruiter’s office signing up to join the Marines. Wall’s mother had to sign as well since he was 17 years old at the time. Wall joined and waited for his birthday and graduation from McPherson High School in 2005, after which he was sent off to boot camp.
“After 2001 it was a motivation,” Wall explained. “And of course, I wanted to join the baddest branch out there.”
Wall went to boot camp and then on to advanced training to become a small arms repairer. His mother recalled the recruiter telling them that because of this specialty he likely wouldn’t see combat any time soon. This was quickly contradicted when Wall got to boot camp and was told: “Ninety percent of you will be in harm’s way in less than a year.”
While a startling reality to most, Wall wasn’t that surprised by the comment. Marines are first and foremost Marines regardless of the job they are trained to do. They are warriors and warriors go to war.
“We knew when we signed up that there was a good chance of going overseas,” Wall explained.
When he finished his training, he came home to McPherson for a short time. He was called up for deployment to Iraq. He was sent to Trebil, a Forward Operating Base near the Jordanian border. It was here that Wall and his unit trained Iraqi Police and Iraqi Border Patrol to defend their own country. This mission produced its own unique set of challenges.
“You never knew what they were going to do. They would be there, get one paycheck from the government, then leave,” Wall said. “They didn’t know what they were doing, so that’s what we were there for.”
War isn’t pretty, it isn’t easy, and it is dangerous. This was a lesson Wall learned early in the deployment. While guarding the entry control point of the FOB, an insurgent managed to set off a Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device. The explosion was approximately 150 yards from where he stood.
“Any Marine knows you are always trained to go to war until it actually happens,” Wall said. “I thought ‘We’re here. This is going to be fun.’ It was very surreal. When you personally experience it, it puts it in a different perspective.”
The tour was full of moments Wall could recall with vivid clarity.
“I could talk all night, but that would take forever,” Wall said. “I didn’t regret any of it.”
He came home to McPherson in 2007 and was out of the Marines by 2012. He is now a barber at Luke’s Barber Shop at 221 S. Main St. in McPherson. Though today he cuts hair, as any Marine knows, there is no such thing as a “former Marine.”
Wall and Shane Burge have plenty in common. From joining the Marines straight out of high school to their tours in Iraq. In fact, the two even had the same recruiter, of which neither spoke very fondly. Apparently, the likelihood of going to war wasn’t the only thing the recruiter wasn’t honest about, but in any case, Burge knew he wanted to be a Marine. After graduating from Little River High School, he joined the Marines two years before Wall.
“I knew college was not going to be the place for me,” he said. “I liked to party and it’s probably a good thing I joined the Marines because they like to party.”
In June 2003 Burge became an infantryman. By February 2004, the grunt found himself in Iraq. He too was near the border, but he was stationed near the Syrian border. It was here that he learned a lesson that would be reinforced his entire career.
“Marines are psychopaths,” he said with a laugh and a gleam in his eye.
While on a mission, the group was hit with indirect fire, which is when a mortar is fired without direct line of sight of the target. The Marines didn’t cower, didn’t hide and they didn’t even run for cover. Instead, they stood around and laughed as only Marines will do. It was a fitting beginning to the deployment. The pace never let up with incidents like that one being more common than not. Burge may have been lucky in a lot of ways, but during that deployment, he referred to himself as an “IED-magnet.” But it comes with the territory and he recalled that the mind has a way of protecting itself.
“It was like an out-of-body experience,” Burge said. “It was a coping mechanism my body did. It was always like a movie for me.”
After that tour, Burge had a plan that he hoped would ultimately lead him into the private sector of national security, but until then he re-enlisted as an instructor. He trained non-infantry units in infantry tactics. These units were preparing for deployment to Afghanistan.
“I felt like a hypocrite since I had never been,” he said. “I felt like I needed to check this Afghanistan thing out.”
Well, he couldn’t have that, now could he? So, through the many contacts he had made in the Marines, he volunteered for a stint in Afghanistan. The first mission was a disaster. They took fire, lost men, ended up in what they knew was an IED-infested area, and lost communication with their other team and their home base.
“Every nightmare for a patrol happened on this one,” Burge said. “And we had seven months to go in the deployment. It was like that the entire time.”
He also found himself in the Battle of Husaybah in Al Anbar province. The conflict has in history been overshadowed because during the same time the Battle of Fallujah was taking place. Due to the increased pressure by Americans on Fallujah, insurgents were looking for ways to alleviate some of the heat they were under. First, they attacked Ramadi, which didn’t pan out very well, so they set their sights on the less manned Husaybah.
Outnumbered by a desperate enemy, the Marines didn’t shy from the fight. They engaged in the brutal battle in the streets while simultaneously clearing buildings and regaining control. Burge was there in what has become known as some of the fiercest fighting along the border.
One might think after another excitement-filled deployment, he might finally hang up his boots, but no. During the time before his second deployment, Burge wasn’t just training others, he was getting training himself in martial arts, land navigation, specialized tactics and more. All this training was what got him to where he wanted to be—the private sector of security. He wasn’t quite done with his overseas excursions, though he couldn’t talk much about what came after the military, but he did say, “I’d much rather fight them in their countries than ours.”
“You can only get lucky so many times and had run through all my lives I think,” he explained. “My family needed a husband and a father.”
Life moves a little slower now, but for Burge and so many others, as the saying goes, “once a Marine, always a Marine.”
Veterans’ Story Night is a sponsored event held at the McPherson American Legion Post 24, 401 N. Main St. The event happens every third Tuesday of the month. For more information on this and other events visit the McPherson Legion’s Facebook page.