To serve and to honor

By Matt Benoit

Horizon Reporter

Chris Dzubay, 24, spent six years in a Marine Corp reserve unit, and served two tours of duty in Iraq.  His first tour, from 2003 to 2004, was spent in Iraq’s Anbar Province as a machine gunner on a Humvee. The second, from 2006 to 2007, saw him stationed in Ramadi as a vehicle commander, running convoys in Baghdad and along the Jordanian and Syrian borders.

Dzubay says his military experience helped him learn to really appreciate what he has here in the United States.

“In Iraq, you can’t talk to a woman,” he says. “When we would roll up on a house looking for information, if the father wasn’t there—the man of the house—we would talk to a five-year-old boy before we’d talk to a 30-year-old woman.”

“You kind of look at people differently when you come back,” he adds.

Dzubay also said the life skills acquired from the military, such as discipline and organization, were also what he took away from his time in the service.

“It completely changed who I was,” he says. He turned 19 a week before his first deployment. “I was just a kid when I was a machine gunner,” he says.

Through the good and bad experiences, Dzubay says he’s glad he did it and even more glad that he came back. He’s also glad to be at Whatcom.

“This school has been really supportive of veterans,” says Dzubay, who’s been a student at Whatcom since fall quarter of 2008.  “I’m really proud to be a part of this.”

Other than a grandfather who briefly served in the Air Force, Dzubay says he’s the only military member of his family.

“Memorial Day can be a very emotional day,” said Dzubay, adding that he’ll usually get together with veteran friends and remember friends they’ve lost in combat.

For Dzubay, who would kept a pocket full of candy, it was children who got to him the most while he was abroad.

On a foot patrol with around 50 soldiers in the Delilah Province north of Baghdad, he recalls seeing a little girl who made him think. The patrol was halted, and Dzubay was at the very end of the  group of soldiers when he heard a man behind him saying “Hello mister!” He turned around to see the man kneeling next to his daughter, who was, Dzubay says, maybe a year old. The man was waving her hand at Dzubay, who went over to talk to them.

“As I get closer, I see that she has all these burns on her face,” says Dzubay. “I just think, like, ‘what did this girl…why did she deserve to have this happen?’”

“That one just really kind of hit me. I kind of wanted to like, scoop her up and take her home and give her a good life.”

“[Iraqi kids] have to go through this while our kids eat Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and drink Red Bulls and get fat,” he said.

Sean Dalgarn, 25, has been a Whatcom student since fall quarter of 2009. He served for four years in the Air Force, and was deployed overseas twice to Iraq and Kuwait.

During Dalgarn’s first tour, which began in 2005, he was stationed in Kirkuk, in Northern Iraq. He went to Baghdad in 2007. Both times he found himself not flying planes, but working with Army units doing mounted and dismounted patrols. In Baghdad he did medical work.

“Pretty much anywhere anything bad happened, that’s where we would go,” Dalgarn says of his time in the Iraqi capital. “We just basically policed the Iraqi populace.”

He served in Kuwait in 2008 working security at an airbase.

Dalgarn, who graduated from Sedro-Woolley High School in 2003, joined the military to pay for school. In going overseas, he says he learned a lot.

“You’re forced to grow up extremely fast,” he says, adding that at the ages of 18 to 20, one is confronted with making life or death decisions. “I saw a lot of wild stuff, but I can justify it, I guess.”

“I learned life is too short,” he says. “Look out for yourself, look out for your family, look out for your friends.”

Al Epp, distance learning coordinator at Whatcom, spent over 20 years in the armed forces, serving in both the Air Force and Air National Guard.

Epp spent four years in the Air Force at Los Angeles AFS doing personnel work, 14 years in the California Air National Guard as a career advisor and recruiting manager, and his last seven years of service in the Washington Air National Guard as a recruiter, where he was stationed in Bellingham.

He says that the military offers a good opportunity to mature and grow, especially for someone from a small town.

And he offers a bit of advice.

“Your service time is what you make of it,” he says. “You still have choices to make, so make good ones. Volunteer; don’t wait to be sent where you don’t want to go.”

Epp says his family always flies the American flag and usually has a family picnic on Memorial Day.

Bill Zilinek, who works in Whatcom’s IT department, spent six years in the Navy from 1987 to 1993. After boot camp in Orlando, Florida followed by a year of school on Mare Island, California, he spent the rest of his military career on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise.

As a Data Systems Technician, Zilinek was responsible for the repair and maintenance of Honeywell computer mainframes and all related hardware. He says the 40 hours per week  he spent on electronics and computer servicing gave him the training he’s needed for his post-military career.

The schooling he received, he says, was interesting.

“There was a test every Friday,” recalls Zilinek. If students scored less than 80%, they’d fail and have to take remedial classes on the first two nights of the next week, while having to learn new material during the day. Those who failed to pass the Wednesday make-up test would be set back into another class, and if they failed again, they were kicked out of school and turned into a bosun’s mate (a non-commissioned officer who helps do ship maintenance).

“We called that ‘going to IBM’…Instant Bosun’s Mate,” says Zilinek. “Our school had the second highest drop rate in the Navy, right behind the nuclear-power school. I never failed a test, but I had a lot of friends who spent most of their Navy careers scraping paint off the sides of ships.”

Even though he learned a lot, Zilinek says the work he did in the service was just that—work. A usual workday at sea was 12 hours-on, 12 hours-off, seven days a week.

Overall, though, Zilinek says he enjoyed being at sea, where he’d watch the waves roll by and lean out over the side of the ship to watch dolphins play in the bow wake, and generally get “a feel for how tiny this giant ship really was in relation to the ocean around it.”

Zilinek says he also enjoyed participating in a firefighting school, which was required of sailors because “there is no fire department when you’re at sea.” Fortunately, he never had to put his skills to the test.

For Memorial Day, Zilinek says he usually goes by himself to visit his late father, a Korean War veteran who is buried under a military marker near Ferndale. “I’ll start taking my kids as they get a bit older,” he says.

Getting that military maker took time, however, as Zilinek says his father was one of many thousands of veterans, from World War I to Vietnam, whose military records were destroyed in a military depot fire in the early 1970s.

“We had a tough time proving that he had been in the Army,” Zilinek says. “He had told me dozens of stories as I grew up, but we had no proof. The only proof I ever found was a wallet-sized discharge card. No other records survived.”

Zilinek says two of his uncles got him interested in serving in the Navy. Both served on the U.S.S. Lexington in World War II. One died on the ship while the other went on to work for NASA as a mechanic on the Apollo program.

Two other uncles served in the war; one of them died fighting the Germans. Zilinek says he got to read the letter that was sent home describing his death.

“It was absolutely chilling for me, even decades later, because we share the same name,” he recalls. “It was like reading my own obituary.”

Wayne Erickson, who teaches biology at Whatcom, spent four years as an infantry officer in the Army and four years as an armor officer in the Army National Guard. In the Army, he saw combat in the central highlands of Vietnam as an infantry platoon leader and company commander.

“After being in combat, you never completely relax,” says Erickson. “You never forget; you always think about it every day.  I worked with some of greatest guys from all walks of life and all parts of the great country in which we live.  I get to meet with some of them occasionally and it is so cool to talk with them, meet their families; just be with those amazing guys—my men, my comrades in arms and life.”

His time in combat makes him think.

“There has to be a better way to settle things than combat,” he says. “We have to be sure we want to sacrifice human lives before we go to war.  Ask the question, ‘Is this worth the life of my own beloved child?’  before entering into the fray.”

Erickson says he does not attend Memorial Day services because they are too emotional. He says he generally just tries to reflect.

Barry Maxwell, political science instructor at Whatcom, served in the Army for 21 years. He was stationed twice at McChord, and also spent three years in Germany, three in South Korea, two in Kansas, three in Tennessee, and five at the Pentagon in Washington D.C. before getting out of the Army in July of 1999.

During his military career, he spent roughly half his time as an infantryman and officer, doing various duties including planning and personnel work, and leading groups of soldiers through training to, among other things, learn how to blow things up.

His office displays photos of various military experiences—jungle training near the Panama Canal, shaking hands with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and, perhaps most interesting, a partially-crushed white car that unsuccessfully tried to pass a convoy of tanks that Maxwell was on maneuver with in Germany back in the mid 1980s.

Maxwell says he spent the other half of his time doing more personnel work, and spent three years teaching ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps). He explains his teaching experience in the military helped confirm his desire to teach.

He also enjoyed the travel of military service, and physical and mental conditioning aspects of it as well.

“People can do a whole lot more than they think they can,” Maxwell says. “They just have to be convinced that they can do it.”

Maxwell’s father was a World War II Air Force veteran who was shot down over Germany on Christmas Day of 1944. He spent five months as a prisoner of war, or, as Maxwell says his father would say, “a guest of the German government.”

Maxwell says he does not attend Memorial Day services, but will participate anytime the college has special activities involving veterans.

“It’s more of a private thing for me than a public thing,” he says.

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