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Portage veterans recall wartime miracles, fellowship ahead of Badger Honor Flight trip
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Portage veterans recall wartime miracles, fellowship ahead of Badger Honor Flight trip

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Ron Woodard and Ken “Q-Ball” Auxier of Portage sat side by side in a foxhole in a Vietnamese jungle, reading an eight-day-old copy of the Daily Register that Auxier’s aunt mailed to them from their hometown half a world away.

Staying alert in case of a firefight, Woodard read one half while Auxier glanced over the other side. After reading every story, crime report and obituary, recognizing some names, they switched sides.

Roughly 50 years later, the brothers in arms sat together inside the Portage Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1707, reading a Jan. 17, 2013, Daily Register edition featuring Woodard.

The pair met up days before an Oct. 5 Badger Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., where several Portage veterans will tour historic monuments and be recognized for their service in Vietnam.

“We did what we had to do for our country. We were the best we had at the time,” Auxier said.

Special trip

Columbia County Veterans Service Officer Rebekka Cary, a U.S. Air National Guard veteran herself, said she is paying to attend the upcoming Badger Honor Flight as Auxier’s chaperone.

“I’m thrilled to be sharing this experience with the veterans,” Cary said. “What more perfect trip could I be on and ask to be on with them?”

Every veteran who receives a free ride to Washington, D.C., must either choose a guardian to go with them or be appointed a volunteer chaperone once they arrive in the nation’s capital, Cary said. Woodard’s son, David, is his chosen guardian.

As of Wednesday, 10 Portage area veterans were signed up to attend the Honor Flight next week.

Kim Spaulding had planned to attend the 18-hour-long trip. He died this year, but his wife, Patty, is going in his stead to recognize his service, Auxier said.

To help raise money for the trip, Brothers Bar in Portage has since July 1 sold special buckets of domestic beers for $11, with $1 from every sale being donated to Badger Honor Flight.

Donations can also be made to the nonprofit organization as a whole. To donate, go to badgerhonorflight.org/donate.

Anne Kleist, who owns Brothers Bar with her husband, Errol, said their business intends to make a projected donation of $1,200 after the special fundraiser ends Tuesday.

The beer bucket fundraiser will benefit the guardians of customers John Brunt and Paul Hilgendorf, both of whom are joining the Oct. 5 journey, Anne Kleist said.

“I just feel that they’ve done a lot for this county, and they’re honored to go on this. We should help their guardians go attend,” she said. “I’m just hoping they all have a wonderful flight and that nobody gets ill before they leave.”

Welcome home

Cary said thousands of people will welcome a large group of Wisconsin veterans home late Oct. 5 at Dane County Regional Airport in Madison, after the return flight is expected to land around 9 p.m.

That ceremony and fanfare is a far cry from the reception many veterans got after returning to American soil from Vietnam, Cary said.

“All we can do at this point ... is to honor their service and the sacrifice they made,” Cary said.

Auxier recalled when he returned to the U.S., a civilian spat on his shoulder at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. Some people called the soldiers “baby killers.”

That insult bothered him the most at the time, Auxier said, because he had delivered a young woman’s baby in Vietnam.

Auxier was a combat medic at age 21, sometimes called “Doc” by his squad mates. He recalled he used to fear seeing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., because he might recognize the name of squad members he couldn’t save. He said he’s since learned to put the past behind him.

Looking forward to the Badger Honor Flight, he said it feels, “great, great, great,” knowing he will be part of the entourage.

Family history

Former Portage Mayor Bill Tierney said he’s attending the upcoming Badger Honor Flight as a guardian for his 91-year-old father, William Tierney Sr., who served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War era.

“My dad is extremely excited about the opportunity,” Tierney said. “He gets to be recognized — with so many other veterans — the appreciation that wasn’t there in the ’60s, ’70s.”

Tierney said his father, a Portage native turning 92 in December, was stationed in Alaska when he met his wife, Shirley, in 1952. She was named Miss Alaska that year.

All veterans share a common bond, Tierney said, adding that his dad feels honored to see the Korean War Veterans Memorial and be recognized for fulfilling his civic duty.

Tierney said between veterans, guardians and support staff, about 180 people from Wisconsin will attend the Oct. 5 Badger Honor Flight.

Local veterans Bill Horton, Gary Tomilson, Dennis Koss, Bob Gehardt and John Baldwin are also listed as tentatively attending the Oct. 5 Badger Honor Flight.

Woodard said he was high school classmates with some of the veterans who plan on going.

‘Like winning the lottery’

Woodard, who turned 69 today , and Auxier, 71, both served in the U.S. Marines together as part of Echo Company, Second Battalion, 7th Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

Woodard said at age 19, he carried 120 pounds of gear through the jungle, including a radio and M60 machine gun. Whenever Auxier tended to an injured squadmate, Woodard said he helped carry additional equipment.

“You don’t think; you just do it,” Woodard said, crediting a combination of luck and faith for his and other veterans’ survival.

When a squadmate stepped on a grenade, Woodard recalled the gunnery sergeant had been hit by shrapnel in the chest and was still giving orders.

Auxier and Woodard had met in 1967 at The Roost, a former bar in Portage. Auxier, who had earned the nickname “Q-Ball” while playing billiards, told Woodard, a soon-to-be-Marine, he was enlisting in the Navy. They became fast friends.

After they parted ways and went through boot camp separately, Auxier transferred into the U.S. Marines. Auxier said when he arrived in Vietnam in January 1970, he was introduced to his new squad.

Auxier said he saw the seventh guy in line and froze up. The corporal remarked, “You look like you guys know each other.”

“I said, ‘You’re not going to believe this,’” Auxier recalled, noting he and Woodard came from a small town of 8,000 people at the time and were reunited halfway around the world by chance.

“It’s like winning the lottery to me, if you had to figure the odds on that,” Woodard said.

Follow Brad on Twitter @BradMikeAllen or call him at 608-745-3510.

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