For Mid-Columbia veterans, old or new, bonds are the same

By Michelle Dupler, Tri-City HeraldNovember 11, 2012 

In some ways, Ken Sanders and Abby Stipcak are as different as two people can be.

Sanders, of Kennewick, is 88, married 67 years and works every day in the auto repair job he's held for 30 years since retiring from his first career as a heavy equipment operator.

Stipcak, of Richland, is 26, a divorced mom of two young children and a student at Columbia Basin College working toward a career in health care.

Even though they've never met, both likely would say that what they have in common is far more important than their differences -- both are military veterans.

Today marks Stipcak's first Veterans Day since leaving the Air Force in January. It's Sanders' 67th since being honorably discharged with a Purple Heart from the Army in July 1945.

They are among the ranks of Washington's estimated 620,000 living veterans -- and among about 15,200 living in Benton County. Franklin County has about 3,200 veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Sanders' generation -- the people who fought fascism in World War II and have been dubbed "the Greatest Generation" -- is dwindling, and those older than 85 represent the smallest portion of local veterans, with just more than 1,000 left in Benton and Franklin counties.

A Purple Heart hero

When Sanders perched on a stool at SAS Auto Electric in Kennewick -- the auto shop owned by his son since 1982 -- to talk about his experiences as an Army scout on the French-German border in 1945, everyone around him turned off their machines and put down their tools to listen.

Some of them were surprised to learn details they never knew about his service, and gained an even greater level of respect for a man whose military service is proudly proclaimed on a banner at the shop's entrance.

Sanders, a man of humility and few words, told the Herald that he joined the Army in August 1944, and hadn't finished basic training before being sent to France in January 1945. There, he was assigned to the 42nd "Rainbow" Division, which was trying to penetrate the German line in the Alsace-Lorrain region.

His first day on the front line was Jan. 28 -- his 21st birthday.

"It was very scary," he said. "We rode in a truck all day long. We would stop at bridges to inspect them (for explosives). Then, we got to the line and shells were exploding."

Sanders' job was to serve as a scout, which meant walking into the woods to draw German fire so the Army could pinpoint where the Germans were entrenched.

At night, he camped out with about 250 other soldiers in an empty town, where they slept huddled in sleeping bags on about a foot of straw strewn on the floor of the abandoned homes and buildings.

Each day, his unit would patrol the countryside -- territory he said was like the Blue Mountains -- in the wintry cold and wonder which of them would make it back that night.

"Every time we'd go out, somebody would get hurt," he said.

On March 23 of that year, "somebody" was Sanders.

He had finished his patrol that day and was on his way back to town with a buddy, Steve, when they passed through a German munitions dump.

"All of a sudden, there were shells," he said. "They hit Steve. They hit me. A short time later, things went foggy, and I was treated for a gunshot wound."

Sanders said the last time he saw his friend, Steve was running in front of him with a hole in his back where he'd been hit by shrapnel. Sanders was injured on his arm and back. A few years ago, he learned Steve still was alive and living near New York City. He has since died.

Sanders spent months going from hospital to hospital -- first in France, then England, then on a hospital ship back to the U.S. through Atlantic waters still patrolled by German U-boats.

On July 4, 1945, he was discharged and boarded a train back home to Wyoming. That September, he married his sweetheart, Dorothy. They celebrated their 67th anniversary this year.

In the decades since the war, he's led a quiet life. He was raised a family, had a 30-year career at Lampson International, and then a second 30-year career rebuilding starters and alternators -- a trade he learned as he was nearing 60.

He continues to work full time, and said he'll do so as long as he's able.

"If the good Lord lets me live to be 100, I'll be looking for part-time work," he said. "I look around at my friends I grew up with. They wanted to retire, and they're all gone. I'm still going. If you can't do something, you're not worth much anyway."

But all of these years later, he's never forgotten the men he served with in France or their devotion to their country.

"They were a brave bunch of people. They did what they had to do," he said. "It's not just that you have to do it. You get to a place where you want to do it."

Newly minted vet settles in

Stipcak said she made lifelong friendships during her four years in the Air Force.

"The people I met -- there was an instant connection, so much in common," she said.

She also met her former husband in the Air Force. Their two children were born while they both were stationed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst near Trenton, N.J. They still talk by Skype since she moved to the Tri-Cities.

The 2005 Southridge High School graduate enlisted when she was 21 after having worked in retail and at a Montessori school while trying to decide on a career.

She comes from a military family -- her grandfather, parents and brother all have served in different branches -- and so joining up herself seemed natural.

She chose the Air Force because she wanted to travel and liked the kinds of jobs the Air Force had to offer. She said she was thrilled when she was deployed to work as an in-flight refueling boom operator in the United Arab Emirates.

"I felt like I won the lottery when I got that job," Stipcak told the Herald. "I had the best seat in the house."

Her job was to line up planes -- fighter jets, cargo planes -- with the refueling plane so that they could gas up in the air.

"It was a lot of responsibility," she said. "I always had to be cognizant of everything going on, be aware of where (the other plane) is. You have to be very precise. ... I couldn't believe they let a 21-year-old do that. I grew a lot. It's given me a whole new perspective on what I'm capable of."

At times, there could be several planes waiting at once, and she likened the work to putting together an intricate puzzle.

She could spend seven to 14 hours in the air every day.

Once the plane was close enough, she could use instruments to direct the pilot and to move the refueling boom.

She also went through SERE training -- survival, evasion, resistance and escape -- in case her refueling plane went down in the desert or behind enemy lines.

"Once I accomplished that, I thought I'd never done anything so hard in my life," she said. "Then I had kids."

The births of her two sons -- Colton, 2, and Easton, 1 -- were what led to her decision to leave the service even though she loved the job and misses it still.

"It was a really hard decision," she said. "The job I was in, I could have one or the other. It was hard to have both (work and family)."

She's now putting those puzzle-solving and hand-eye coordination skills to use in a new field as she studies to be an echocardiogram technician doing 3D imaging of human hearts to identify problems and disease.

"Once I went to the information session, I realize how much it plays to my strengths," she said.

But like Sanders, she'll never forget her time in military service, and will talk proudly about it with her boys as they grow up.

"It taught me a lot," she said. "I'd be very proud if they decide to join the service someday."

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