Veterans Day affords us the opportunity to pause, reflect, and honor those who have sacrificed and served our county in the armed services. The four stories shared here offer a glimpse into what that experience was like for each of these individuals and the common bond they now share for life. To them, and all the others who have served, WECU offers a sincere and heartfelt thank you!
Matt Gustke, WECU Systems Engineer
“I grew up in Indian Valley, Idaho, population 35. I saw joining the Air Force as a way to escape,” Gustke said. “I had always had an interest in computers and so I thought I’d go in, get all this training, and have a chance to start a career in the IT field.”
Matt walked into a federal building to be sworn in to join the US Air Force on September 11, 2001. “I remember the morning we were waiting to get sworn in. We were in the waiting room watching TV and then we saw the first plane hit the World Trade Center.” Very quickly, his vision for what his life would look like got turned on its head.
“I had enlisted in a time of peace but I realized that if I joined, there would be a chance that I would find myself carrying a gun while fighting in a war overseas. There was so much chaos that they told us to come back to get sworn in. I was with 15 other people who were going to different branches of the military and we had very real conversations about whether we still wanted to do it. Every single person did. I remember it was on that day that I decided, beyond my career, my biggest reason for joining was because I wanted to be a part of something bigger. I wanted serve my country.”
Scott Bartl, WECU Member
“My draft number was 16 in 1970 so I pretty much knew I was going to be drafted,” Bartl said. “I knew I wouldn’t get a student deferment even if I were accepted to college, so I joined in order to get a choice of my career path. It wasn’t a big deal- I wanted to serve but it was just a matter of whether I served before college or after.”
Bartl, who grew up in Mt. Baker, was deployed to Vietnam and saw combat but, like many veterans who see combat, he preferred not to speak specifically about his experience. “It’s kind of like the start of the book- it was the best of times and the worst of times,” Bartl said. “The worst of times you can figure out on your own, but the best of times were the people I served with. You serve with people from all over the United States- even some volunteers from Canada and our territories, Puerto Rico and Guam. There were guys from wealthy families and poor families. People from all ethnic groups, all religious groups, yet we were all brothers. I’m honored and proud that I served with every one of them and I think most of them would say the same thing.”
This camaraderie, mutual appreciation, and respect isn’t a coincidence, Bartl said, “it’s taught.”
“I have to rely on you, you have to rely on me. There’s no one else in the fox hole. In a war zone you get to know the people around you probably better than you know your brother and sister. You’re sharing some of your most intimate details because you’re not sure what’s going to happen from one minute to the next. When you’re just with a bunch of other kids, scared to death, you talk and that’s how you calm each other down. This inseverable bond builds through these shared experiences and that’s why you hear the term band of brothers, because that’s what you are.”
Bartl said that these experiences, along with the many others he shared while serving 25 years in the reserves, are what he reflects on every November 11. “I went to the traveling wall that they had out at Hovander Farm and that was probably one of the hardest things I ever did in my life. I think civilians should go see that to understand what veterans really risk. It’s humbling.”
Bartl wears a hat fastened with pins representing the battles he fought in. “I wear this hat, and the names of those battles, not to point out what I’ve done, but to honor the men I served with.”
Bob Hepker, WECU Facilities Assistant Mail Coordinator
Bob served in the Marines from 1969-1971. He never was deployed, nor saw combat. When asked about visiting the traveling wall, he teared up. “I’m no hero,” Hepker said. “The closest thing I got to being shot at was moving targets at the gun range on the base. But seeing the traveling wall was a tearful and somber experience. The names of two marines I knew are on it. They were my friends.”
“I didn’t join the Marines to feel important or special. I grew up in a small town in Iowa and I knew that serving my country was one of the things I could contribute,” he said. “It was just something I wanted to do.”
“Veterans Day to me is a day where I’m thankful to all the men and women who have served the country and I take the time to recognize them. Not just the men I served with, or just the marines, but everybody. It’s a day to be thankful for all we have and the freedoms,” Hepker said.
Seth Bowen, WECU Member
“I joined the Army out of high school in 1995,” Bowen said. “I hadn’t planned on joining. My brother had enlisted before me and I looked at him and said I’m never going to do that, but three years later I found myself in boot camp.” Bowen spent his enlistment at Fort Lewis near Tacoma, WA.
“It’s absolutely a different experience between serving in a time of peace and a time of war. A lot of my friends stayed in the military and had very different experiences than I did,” Bowen said. “I’ve spoken with them about it and I think being in the military, I have a certain level of empathy for them and what they went through. I think that’s true for those who served in other branches of the military as well.”
“I believe Veterans Day is an important day to acknowledge those who served the country but I think every day is a good day to appreciate veterans, especially now,” Bowen said. “I was fortunate to serve in a time when we weren’t in a time of war, but pretty much since 2001, everyone who goes in to the army, as I was, is deployed at least for a period of time overseas. I have such respect for those guys and was they do over there.”
What can you do to acknowledge veterans this Veterans Day?
Here are a few simple ways you can join us in remembering the people behind the day.
Learn About the Issues Facing Veterans- Veterans face many issues after returning home including PTSD, depression, mental health issues and homelessness. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has resources to learn more. https://www.samhsa.gov/veterans-military-families/critical-issues
Donate to a veteran’s non-profit– Locally there are many great organizations such as The Wounded Warrior Project or Growing Veterans, which is based in Lynden.
Pick up the phone- if you know a veteran just give them a call and tell them you’re thinking of them and that you appreciate that they served the country.