By Scott T. Sturkol, Fort McCoy Public Affairs June 30, 2014
FORT MCCOY, WIS. -- Every June, veterans affiliated with Wisconsin National Guard's 32nd "Red Arrow" Division arrive at Fort McCoy for a week of camaraderie and friendship.
This annual gathering of the 32nd "Old Timers," where veterans help keep each other strong, aligns with the U.S. Army's new Soldier for Life program, which operates on the principle of "once a Soldier, always a Soldier."
Soldier for Life also is based on a holistic approach to the military lifecycle career of a Soldier and highlights four points -- "start strong, serve strong, reintegrate strong and remain strong."
Many veterans in the 32nd Red Arrow "Old Timers" Club, also known as the 32nd "Old Timers," said their annual, week-long get-together helps them stay strong. This year they gathered at the post from June 7-12.
"This group originally started meeting in 1948 as a group of officers," said retired Brig. Gen. Charles Scharine of Whitewater, Wis., former 32nd commander and commander of the group. "Later on, the group was changed to include enlisted and officers, and that's the way we like it."
Retired Sgt. 1st Class Robert Ehrke of Fort Atkinson, Wis., first attended a 32nd "Old Timers" meeting in 1957. He said the late E.J. "Doc" Sartel, who served as an Army sergeant during World War II, was a major force in getting the group to include everyone in the late 1950s.
"When it (the group) combined, it got a lot better," Ehrke said. "Every year it's good to see some of the older guys. However, it gets harder every year when some of the older guys don't come back and we find out they are gone, so every meeting with this group is a treasure."
Scharine said members of the 32nd "Old Timers" take care of each other, and many of the veterans look forward to the gathering.
"When we come here, we get the camaraderie and we see old friends," said Scharine, who is from Whitewater, Wis. "We also stay current with the military of today through updates we receive during our visit."
The 32nd "Old Timers" are at the "remain strong" stage of Soldier for Life, and many members reflect that in their comments.
"I've been a part of this group since 1996," said retired Lt. Col. Andy Jatnieks of Rothschild, Wis. "The friends I have made in this group over the years have been priceless."
Former Staff Sgt. Frank Venske of Wausau, Wis., added, "The camaraderie is the best part of our meeting. This is a good group of people. When I come here, I see friends, and it's very good to have longtime friends like these (veterans)."
Jatnieks, one of the event's coordinators, said more than 90 veterans arrived for the 2014 gathering. The group includes veterans who have served in many different eras of American military history -- from World War II, Korea and Vietnam as well as the present day.
The 2014 meeting included many different events, such as tours of Fort McCoy facilities and units, visits with current Soldiers, and a tour outside the post to Trempealeau County cities and attractions. The group also held a charity auction, and planned and cooked their own meals at one of the installation's dining facilities.
"We had some people who were here for the whole time and some who just stopped by for a few days," Jatnieks said.
For retired Maj. Joe Kessenich, an 87-year-old World War II veteran and life-time resident of Waunakee, Wis., being a part of the group and doing all the activities helps continue the "esprit de corps" that so many veterans enjoyed during their time in service.
"Having this (group) meet every year is really important because it's good for everyone involved," said Kessenich, who first served in the Pacific in the battle for Okinawa, Japan, in 1945. "It's good to spend time together and continue the attitude of service to our country. It's an attitude I don't think we have enough of (as a society) these days."
Soldier for Life also seeks to continue to build strong relationships between the military and the community. Veterans with the 32nd "Old Timers" group reside in communities all across Wisconsin, and are active in their hometowns.
"It's important to learn from some of the older guys, what they did for their country and what they continue to do," said retired Sgt. 1st Class Larry Dikeman of Fond du Lac, Wis.
Dikeman, one of the youngest and newest members, said his experiences with the group since he left the Army in 2002 have been great.
"The more you get into it, the more people you meet and the more you learn," Dikeman said. "I'm trying to get some of my former comrades to join up, too, so we can keep this tradition going."
With their years of military service behind them, the 32nd "Old Timers" exemplify what it means to "remain strong." And that's fine with them.
"I'm already looking forward to next year," Dikeman said.
For more information about the Army's Soldier for Life initiative, go online to http://www.soldierforlife.army.mil.