There is something about military service which brings diverse members, even generations apart, closer together.
This was evident in the words and actions of U.S. Army Col. Rachele (Menkhaus) Smith, who served as guest speaker for the 2015 Clinton County Veterans Day Program held last Wednesday, Nov. 11, in Bartelso.
“From one generation to the next, some things have changed in today’s military — the uniform has undergone many changes, the battlefield is more complex and even the face of the veteran is now 22-30 years old, the youngest population of veterans since Vietnam — but one thing remains the same: the proud heart of the American soldier.”
A native of Bartelso who has 23 years of active U.S. Army duty service with exceptional performance in health-care operations both stateside and overseas, Smith said all veterans are forged together by the sacred values of duty, honor, country and trust.
“We rallied around our national and organizational colors just as it has been and just as it always will be,” Smith said. “And so, our young veterans draw from the legacy of courage and strength they have inherited from those that marched tirelessly before them.”
Smith shared the head table with many distinguished guests. Among them was veteran Vince Rolves of Carlyle, who spent 18 months as a prisoner of war during World War II in Europe. Now 91, Rolves is the last surviving POW in Clinton County. At the end of her speech, Smith honored Rolves by presenting him with an Army challenge coin that she carried in her pocket. Usually presented by high-ranking officers, it’s considered to be a great honor to receive a challenge coin.
“Those of us still in uniform look to those of you who have gone before us with admiration and with gratitude. You have given so much of yourselves to make our nation strong and leave us a legacy of which we can all be proud,” Smith said. “So I stand before you humbled by your loyalty, service and commitment to each other and to our country. I stand before you grateful for your support and the path that you forged that made it easier for us to follow. I stand before you blessed to be able to follow in your footsteps and proud to be a part of our nation’s veterans.”
Currently, Smith is serving as the director of Patient Administration Systems & Biostatics Activity at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. She was also appointed to be the Patient Administration Consultant to the Army Surgeon General service as the subject-matter expert on patient administration and health information management.
Smith has been selected to command at the O6 level and will take command of the 115th Combat Support Hospital at Fort Polk, La., in summer 2016.
“As an Army officer, a member of this fine American Legion and proud daughter of Carol and Phil Menkhaus, a retired Air Force Chief, Master Sergeant — with two brothers who served in the Navy, so I think the Menkhaus family has the services covered — there is no better place to be than right here with you honoring those who came before us who paved the way for those who continue to serve now,” she said, asking all veterans in attendance to stand and be recognized.
“Our veterans understand that we have entered an era of conflict with an adaptive enemy who is driven by extremist ideologies,” Smith said. “Our veterans know the misery of marching for hours through the rain and they know the joy of touching American soil after returning home from deployment. It is that smell of fresh-cut grass that immediately brings me back home. Our veterans know what it means to serve and they continue to be our advocate for a strong national defense, reliable equipment and the best training and leadership a serviceman can have. They also fight for the health care and benefits of those who have served. Our veterans understand the needs and fight for today’s soldier, sailor, airman, Marine and Coast Guardsman.”
“Our veterans will tell you they are ordinary men and women. But I know they do extraordinary things. They are part of less than 1 percent of the population who serve our nation defending our rights and liberties. You, our veterans, are heroes; although most do not readily admit it and they will probably tell you that serving their country was a privilege. They often don’t tell their stories either, so I challenge you to share your stories, and I challenge the others, especially our younger generation, to ask and listen to their stories at any opportunity you have because they are what have made this country what it is today.”
Smith then shared her own story.
“I truly enjoy being in the military,” she said. “This, for me, is not a job; it is having a purpose in life. For me it is my ‘calling.’ I thank God for calling me to serve and giving me this purpose.”
She admits that she didn’t do it alone.
“I grew up in small-town Bartelso, and my family and friends are my lifelong influences. When they say ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ I have the best village who made me who I am. I have also been fortunate to have worked with excellent servicemembers along the way and had great people who have inspired me. I am truly blessed.”
Smith said she has been stationed all around the world — Fort Sam Houston, Texas; Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Campbell, Ky.; and Mannheim and Heidelberg, Germany. She has been deployed three times — in 1999 to Kosovo for a peacekeeping mission and twice in combat, in 2001 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and in 2003 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. All were early-entry deployments, living in very austere environments.
“We didn’t have running water for weeks, we slept in overcrowded, dusty tents, ate MREs for months where you learn to be creative in using every part of the MRE, from the coffee and tobacco to the small package of toilet paper that was like gold at times.”
Still, she said, she never seemed to want for much because before she knew it, her hometown family, friends and even Bartelso Elementary students would send care packages with letters, cards and all the “creature comforts” that she needed. She always shared these items with her fellow soldiers.
“I am sure most of you can relate to receiving that letter, that lifeline from home,” Smith said. “So even on the worst days when I saw some of the most horrific tragedies of war firsthand, I could look back at the cards and letters and know that all would be OK.”
During those times, she said, she learned what was important and always remembered why she and fellow soldiers were there.
“We went because our nation called and we had an important job to do, like all servicemembers who have served all over the world throughout our nation’s history.”
Set aside as a day to honor and remember all of our area veterans, the countywide celebration — hosted by Bartelso American Legion Post 976, Catholic War Veterans and Auxiliary Marion Post 1780, Bartelso Knights of Columbus and Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 269 — included a church service, program, dinner, parade and music.
Also offering comments were Bartelso Mayor Jack Wilken, Bartelso American Legion Commander Gary Boyajian and Rev. James Buerster, pastor of St. Cecilia Parish.
In her closing comments, Smith thanked all veterans in attendance.
“President John F. Kennedy once said that ‘a nation reveals itself not only by the people it produces, but also by the people it honors, the people it remembers.’ We honor and remember you — our veterans. Thank you for your continued service and support to our servicemembers and this great nation. God bless you and your families.”