And they’re still fighting to keep the focus on those who died in battle – and the battles still fought by those returning home today.
Pearl Harbor survivor E.J. “Chuck” Kohler has made it his mission to commemorate the World War II attack and the people who died there. Each year, the Navy vet speaks at the Mount Diablo beacon lighting ceremony as part of Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.
“When that beacon light is turned on, that’s a tribute to those individuals that lost their lives at Pearl Harbor,” said Kohler.
John Dreisbach of Concord is disabled due to sarin gas exposure during Desert Storm, yet the Army vet proclaims: “I will continue to try to do what I can to help other veterans.”
He joined the Jerry Novakovich Post 1575 Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) to find others who could relate to combat duty. “Even though we served in different locations and experienced different things, the commonalities of war are constant,” he said.
Former VFW Post 1575 commander Pete Loechner advocates for veterans in numerous ways. He is a member of the American Legion and Korean War Veterans Association as well as volunteering every Monday at the Veterans Administration clinic in Martinez.
“Any veterans in the area who have a problem, we help them,” he said. “I just can’t thank the people of Concord and Clayton enough. They are so good to give donations. I’ve never had anybody give us any static – they just seem to be helpful.”
WWII vet Wilfred Wilcox founded the Mount Diablo Marine Corps League in 1996. “We’re involved in community activities, burial ceremonies, parades,” said Wilcox, who also is a VFW member. “I think one of the important parts about a veterans’ group is for vets to meet others like them.”
Steve Barton calls the VFW “one of the premiere organizations for supporting veterans.” He became a member after the group was instrumental in the presentation of his Bronze Star for service in Vietnam. “All the money raised goes toward the veterans, and that is something to admire,” he noted.
As an owner of the Clayton Club, Barton offers a free drink for vets on Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
“I ask where they served, but I don’t get too nosy about their experiences unless they want to offer it,” he said. “Combat veterans don’t do a lot of sharing. It has to be the right circumstance.”
A haunting experience
Dreisbach and many other vets are struggling to cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “My PTSD got so bad that my wife left,” he said. “I don’t feel embarrassed to say it – it’s just what happened.”
Mark Steinberg, the new Concord VFW post commander, suspects he has PTSD but has never sought a diagnosis. “I have anger issues, and it may be related to that,” said Steinberg, a Navy vet from the Vietnam era.
He also has health issues that he thinks may be linked to Agent Orange exposure. “I was stationed in Saigon, so my stuff was minor. A lot of veterans who were in combat were much worse.”
Steinberg is committed to reaching out to younger veterans, including students at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill.
“When I got out and went back to school, you didn’t talk about being a Vietnam veteran in those days. It just wasn’t done,” Steinberg said. “The goal of Vietnam veterans was to make sure that newer veterans did not have to go through the same things we did.
“The younger veterans know what we had to go through and what we’ve done to help them,” he added. “We’re here to help them get their claims, because they have a lot of medical problems. We also try to help homeless veterans.”
A life of service
These brave men are unwavering in their support of today’s troops – as well as careers in the military.
“The military is where some people perform the best. A lot of people find themselves in the military,” said Wilcox, noting that the Marine Corps taught him about love of country and responsibility. “It’s been my guide through my life.”
Kohler said a whole new world opened up for him after he enlisted in the Navy at age 17. “I met a number of those who were the kind of person I hoped to be,” he recalled, “and a hell of a lot of examples of the kind of person I would never want to be.”
Loechner said his father, who emigrated from Germany, always told him how lucky he was to be an American. Although Loechner’s plans to become an air cadet didn’t pan out, he remains passionate about enlisting. “I would tell the young people, listen, if you want a good education, join the Air Force.”
Barton said he always admired his father for his service in the Battle of the Bulge during WWII. “I felt that it was patriotic to answer the call,” said Barton, who was drafted into the Army.
“You’re called to duty, you do your duty.”
Dreisbach calls military service “a complex question” but said he would encourage today’s youth to serve their country. Yet he can’t ignore the toll it took on him: a severe skin condition, short-term memory loss, migraines and now, a failing heart.
“I was a kinder person, I think, before the war. I know that’s a cliché,” he reflected. “But after the war, life was a lot harder. Things weren’t so simple and easy anymore. But I would do it again, knowing that what happened to me is gonna happen.”