Ed Saunders was born in Nebraska. He moved to Riverton, Wyoming as a child. Saunders joined the United States Army and served as a regular for more than 20 years. He has been actively involved with the Yellowstone National Cemetery in Laurel and served in the First Gulf War. His book on the making of the Yellowstone National Veterans Cemetery is titled, “Sentinels: Yellowstone National Cemetery.”
Saunders: I grew up in Western Wyoming and because of that, and my father’s very strong work ethic, you became a self-reliant man and you also appreciated the hard work and suffering that people put in. It was a largely a conservative area and I grew up in the Civil Rights era and also in the Vietnam era where even the conservatives where I grew up were questioning what we were doing. That questioning is always wise for people to pause for a little and say, “What is America doing?” I registered for the draft when I was 18. When the draft numbers — the draft lottery numbers came out for Vietnam, it’s the only time I ever won the lottery. My draft number was 009. The rule on the street was if your draft number was 125 or lower, then you were Long Binh bound. You were going to the “First Repo Depot” in South Vietnam. I showed the newspaper list to my dad and he just turned white. My father was a combat veteran of World War II in the Army in the Pacific at the age of 19. I said, “Dad, if I got to go, I got to go.” But I was never called up because the United States was in the Vietnamization program at the time. And the draft had essentially shut down. I knew that for me to get anywhere in life that I had to get an education. My father was the first member of his family to ever get a high school diploma. I knew that I had to get a college degree.
I went to the University of Wyoming and entered the ROTC program, and I remember telling my colonel down there. I said, “Colonel, you ought to know something: I’m No. 9 on the draft.” He looked at me and said, “Saunders, you’re not going anywhere.” So I think he knew something I didn’t. I graduated from Laramie in four years — eight semesters — I never took summer school. I was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States regular Army. I was a regular Army officer my entire career. I stayed. I found the Army to my liking. I liked being in the field. I liked the ruggedness of it and I liked moving around the world. I married a year after I was commissioned to a wonderful little redhead Irish girl I had met in Laramie and she followed me all over the world and bore me a son, and I stayed. I served 22 years and 16 days in the U.S. Army. I survived a war. I do know what a bullet sounds like when it passes your head going the wrong way. I retired because I got hurt in the Gulf War. I wasn’t combat wounded. I do not have a purple heart. The injuries in the Gulf War began to catch up with me. I knew I had to retire. I retired and went to work for corporate America in the defense industry — a coat-and-tie job — I hated every minute of it. It paid good. We became empty-nesters, and my wife, who is a Wyoming native, said, “Let’s go home.” And so I followed her. She worked for over 20 years with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in their medical sections in Albuquerque and here. She made a career serving veterans. God bless the military families who follow us. They don’t get the credit they deserve.
Gazette: You earned two retirements — one from the military and one from a “coat-and-tie” job, why did you get involved in veterans affairs? Why didn’t you go fishing?
Saunders: First, I never was a good fisherman. It’s kind of an ethos that in the military — especially for officers who command units — we command units not for ego and we certainly don’t get any more pay for doing it. We do it as a measure of service. We know that in our experience and our training, we can organize a group of dissimilar people, in this case soldiers from all walks of life, and in my case, both genders, and we mold them to achieve a goal which singularly they could not do. And when you retire from the military, you look at how best you can continue to serve. It’s not because it’s a self-serving ego trip, but it’s a calling that courses through you. It’s a pretty hard thing to describe, but when you see a need, especially with veterans, mostly men, who are struggling with coming to grips with their service and how to continue with their life, you think in a practical sense and a compassionate sense, you can help them. To step away from that, I think is, well, I wouldn’t do it. When you see someone who needs help and you and you walk away from them, that’s an indictment on you as a man. And when I saw fellow veterans who needed help, and they didn’t know where to go and who to talk to, all of my Army training and experience and my experience as a Christian man, you put all that together, and you say: It’s my responsibility to help these men and women. I can’t walk away from them.
Gazette: What kind of help do you see men and women who are coming back today need most?
Saunders: They need an assurance that first, they are not forgotten. I think the greatest tragedy to an American service man or woman is not that they may possibly be killed in action, the greatest tragedy is that they are forgotten. That they do these remarkable and courageous things worldwide in very dangerous and hostile places and they would come back to a nation that doesn’t even remember them, or doesn’t even fully comprehend what they do, especially the younger men and women who are 19, maybe 20 years of age. They need that assurance that we, as a people, as nation, and we as a community are there to help them. Asking for help is not an admission of failure or being less of a person, it is saying that your courage still exists in asking for help. That’s why I do a lot of this.
Gazette: Why do you think soldiers today are forgotten or are in danger of being forgotten?
Saunders: The wars that we have now and they were wars in quotation marks, because we are not sure what they are. World War II was probably the last popular war in American history. My father was 19 when he was drafted. My late father-in-law was 17 when he enlisted in the Navy. Both of these men were combat battle veterans when they were teenagers. World War II was a popular war that had a lot of support and we knew what the objective was: Defeat Nazi Germany, defeat Imperial Japan. Then came Korea. We weren’t quite sure what Korea was all about. Then came Vietnam. Vietnam stands alone in a tragedy that America did not know what it was doing. It wasn’t a tragedy for the individual people who served in uniform because they were heroic men and women, but when they came back the nation took out its uncertainty on them. It shouldn’t have done. America now has an entire generation of young men and women who have always known war — the Iraq and Afghanistan conflict — see, I used the word “conflict.” I don’t know what to call it. But when you’re a soldier, a Marine getting shot at, you don’t care about the word, all you know is someone is trying to kill you and that’s war. But we have a generation of young men and women who have known nothing but reading about Americans getting killed on the other side of the planet in a hostile gunfire situation. How do we approach that now? When you bring back a young person and they have seen things that were unimaginable, they heard about it — they may have heard grandpa talk the war or Uncle Jack talk about Da Nang, or Ed Saunders talking about the Battle of Khafji, the battle I was in; but, listening to it and experiencing it are two different things. And the younger mind when they see these unimaginable traumatic events, it skews them a bit. They will not get over it. I told a younger veteran who came back from Afghanistan, I said, “Unfortunately you’re not going to get over this, but you will get through this a stronger man.” I said, “You have two choices here and we can help you: You can be a better man or a bitter man, which one is it going to be?” I see me as helping this younger generation the best I can.” America doesn’t know what to do with these younger men and women because the war is not something which effects us every day. In World War II, it effected things with rationing, the draft and all these sorts of things. Now, it’s just a sidelight on the back page of somewhere and an occasional opinion somewhere. It’s like, “It’s a five o’clock news broadcast, what are the hockey scores tonight?” That’s what we have to guard against.