Almost 50 years to the day of his death, the Orion community Veterans Day observance on Sunday, Nov. 10, remembered the only Orion High School graduate who died in the Vietnam War.
After Michael Leif graduated from OHS in 1967, the Lynn Center native enlisted in the Army and volunteered for combat.
As December 1969 began, he was only a few weeks away from going home. He was a 20-year-old sergeant serving as an armor crewman with C Troop, 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division in Binh Thuan Province on South Vietnam’s southeast coast.
Leif offered to take the place of a less-experienced solider for the patrol on Sunday, Dec. 7. He was walking in front of the tank when he was shot by a 12-year-old girl. As he lay dying, he twice shouted “Don’t shoot her” to the other soldiers.
He is buried in Western Township Cemetery, and a section of the Swedona blacktop (County Highway 7) west of Lynn Center bears his name.
On Sunday, many in Leif’s family attended the Veterans Day service in the sanctuary of Orion United Methodist Church.
The service began with a color guard from Orion American Legion Post 255 and Orion Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 143 posting the colors.
Lori Dhabalt sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Jerry Higdon, pastor of First Baptist Church, Orion, delivered the invocation.
“You are our light and our fortress,” Higdon prayed. “You are our wisdom and our strength. We praise you for this great nation. You have inspired many to defend America. Their service allows us to walk as free men and women.
“We ask you to continue to shine your light on our people and our path going forward,” Higdon prayed.
Muhleman asked for a moment of silence for prisoners of war and the missing in action.
He introduced the Orion Comunity Veterans Monument committee, which organized the Veterans Day observance. Members include Muhleman, Cheryl Peterson, Larry D. Anderson, Suzi Haars, Mitchell Fiedler and Bill Montgomery.
Muhleman remembered George Rose, one of the founding members of the committee. Rose died on Wednesday, Nov. 6. Rose was the only veteran to serve as commander of both the American Legion Post and the VFW post here in Orion.
Rose, who towered over Muhleman, also made good-natured comments about his friend’s short speeches, Muhleman said. When the monument was dedicated in 2006, Rose encouraged Muhleman to give a speech.
Muhleman explained improvements at the monument in Central Park, including the removal of bricks outlining the monument, and replacing them with landscape curbing. Ritch Lieving did the work, which memorial funds for Kathy Anderson and Jim Peterson funded.
A new veterans brick was installed for U.S. Army Specialist Curt Lenning.
Anyone interested in a brick for Memorial Day may order it through Haars at Hepner Insurance Agency in Orion, Muhleman said.
The Orion Community Band, directed by Emily Roberts, performed marches of the Armed Forces. Veterans were invited to stand when the march of their branch of the service was played.
Army Lt. Col. Kelly O’Lear, a native of Ottumwa, Iowa, delivered the keynote address. Earlier this year, he became the command chaplain for the U.S. Army Sustainment Command and the garrison chaplain for Rock Island Arsenal.
In 2003, O’Lear deployed with a combat unit to Iraq for a year. He also deployed to northern Afghanistan for 15 months during some of the heaviest combat there.
After returning to the U.S. in 2009, he served for two years as a burial chaplain at Arlington National Cemetery and participated in 930 funerals and other services for the fallen according to the highest standards of the Old Guard (3rd Infantry Regiment).
O’Lear then returned to Afghanistan for seven months during the surge against the Taliban.
By 2017, he was back in Germany to serve as command chaplain to Special Operations Command Africa. O’Lear made numerous trips to Africa to provide religious support to Special Operations and to act as a diplomat in meetings with religious leaders.
O’Lear admitted mispronouncing “Orion” when he told his congregation earlier in the day that he was going out to the village to speak.
He thanked everyone for giving their time to attend the service as “a true and living tribute” to veterans.
O’Lear noted Nov. 11, 2019, marked the 100th anniversary of the first Armistice Day holiday, which observed the 1-year anniversary of the end of the War to End All Wars.
Last year, on the 100th anniversary of the end of what became known as World War I, O’Lear prayed for peace at Meuse-Argonne Cemetery, where 14,246 Americans are died in French soil.
After explaining more of the history of Armistice Day and Veterans Day, O’Lear noted Canada calls it Remembrance Day.
Both the Old and New Testaments direct believers to remember the past and pass on what they have endured to the next generation, O’Lear said.
It’s also important to remember those who paid the ultimate price, those who were injured and those who have seen and unseen wounds, he said.
The U.S. has 18 million veterans, O’Lear said. Most of the World War II veterans are gone. While he was at Arlington National Cemetery, it was a privilege to hear their stories.
“I pray generations to come appreciate the sacrifices of those who served in World War II,” the chaplain said. “They must not be forgotten. Remembering their service and sacrifice is the least we owe them.”
One of the military’s bedrock principles is “Never leave a fallen comrade behind,” O’Lear said. This principle promotes team cohesion. He added that as the only one on the battlefield without a gun he hopes the team will be cohesive.
The core competencies of Army chaplains are to nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor the dead, he said.
“Wounds we see are easier to heal than those we can’t see,” O’Lear said. “If you are a veteran struggling with hidden wounds, reach out. Your life is meaningful. Your life is valuable. You are created in the image of God.”
O’Lear told the audience, “Our duty is to uphold the cause of freedom. Freedom is never free. The high cost of freedom was paid for by veterans. Peace is only possible because some are willing to face war and to rebuild from the ruins of war.
“The best way to honor veterans is to love our neighbors as ourselves,” the chaplain said. He encouraged the audience to see that no veteran is ever in need, and no veteran will ever be left behind.
“May God bless and keep you all,” O’Lear said. “May freedom bring forever.”
Near the end of the service, Dawn Thompson presented a Quilt of Valor to her uncle, World War II veteran Elmer Johnson. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater, having entered the service in November 1943. Carrying a Browning Automatic Rifle, he fought in the battles on Peleliu and Okinawa.
Johnson came home in 1947 to marry, and he and Mary will celebrate their 72nd anniversary on Nov. 30.
The Orion Community Band played the Lee Greenwood standard, “God Bless the U.S.A.,” with band director Emily Roberts inviting the audience to sing along. Like most Orion audiences at events throughout the years, the audience stood for the song.
Higdon gave the closing prayer, asking God to bless those who serve in the military and their commanders.