Bob Rives and Geoffrey Denight have five wars between them — their service spans from World War II to Iraq. Their military experiences, however, couldn’t have been more diverse.
They live in the same Pendleton North Hill home, though they are not related by blood. Rives is the father-in-law of Denight’s brother, Charles.
Rives joined the Navy shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and retired 40 years later after serving as a military dentist.
“I never heard a shot fired in anger,” he said.
Denight spent two years in the jungles of Vietnam, where he saw friends die. He still carries shrapnel in his leg from a Viet Cong booby trap. As a civilian, Denight worked for the Department of Defense for 25 years and defense contractors for the last 11 years. He returned in December 2011 from seven years in Iraq, where he worked for a contractor.
As a prelude to Veterans Day, the two men agreed to talk about their time in the military.
Rives, 92, remembers hearing of Pearl Harbor at the milk processing company where he worked in 1941. As the Kentucky college student cleaned a bottle washing machine, his boss broke the news.
“He came flying out of the office, yelling that the Japanese had just hit Pearl Harbor,” Rives said. “My first thought was ‘Where the hell is Pearl Harbor?’”
Soon, he and everyone else in the United States knew where Pearl Harbor was and a flood of details about the strike that had killed 2,403 Americans. The attack inspired Rives and other young men to enlist.
“I quit college and joined the Navy,” he said.
After training, the chemistry and biology major was back in college on Uncle Sam’s dime. He completed dental school at the University of Louisville and worked in the Navy Dental Corps. For almost 40 years, he was a behind-the-scenes guy, caring for the troops who sat in his dental chairs, both on ship and shore.
Denight, 63, said he joined the Army in 1969 for less altruistic reasons than Rives. The 19-year-old was floundering in school, spending his time partying instead of studying. He enlisted, trained in demolition and did two tours in Vietnam.
As part of the 59th Land Clearing unit, he started by running bulldozers. The soldiers cleared thousands of acres of cover for Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters.
“When you are 19 and they give you a D7 dozer and tell you to knock everything down – it seems like the perfect job,” Denight said.
The job soon lost some of its luster. Besides knocking down trees, he spent endless hours wandering through the jungle on search-and-destroy missions. On the day he got hurt, “we were out looking for bad guys and the bad guys were looking for us – unfortunately, we all met up.” Shrapnel peppered his chest, arm and leg, temporarily laying him up.
He spent his second tour with the 1st Cavalry Division in a helicopter outfit.
On days off, Denight said, the choices were few. He and his fellow soldiers read letters from home, played basketball and got drunk – that was just the way it was then, he said.
As Denight cleared Vietnamese jungle, Rives floated off the coast of North Vietnam on the U.S.S. Ranger, taking care of a steady flow of sailors who visited his dental chair.
Neither man concentrated on the discord at home as protesters expressed their displeasure with U.S. involvement in Vietnam with anti-war demonstrations.
Things differ for modern troops in many ways, Denight said, from the support at home to the amenities at wartime bases. Matured by his Vietnam experience, he went back to college, then hooked up with the Department of Defense as a civilian, setting up recreation and fitness programs for troops. In Iraq, Denight said, the bases offered full restaurant service instead of the powdered eggs of Nam, plus world class recreation equipment, cable television (Armed Forces Network) and Internet cafes.
Denight, who was born on an Air Force base and lived on the Marshall Islands and Guam, among other posts, said troops have numerous options these days.
“They go and pound weights, play video games with their buddies or get on the Internet and Skype with Mom or Dad,” he said. “They’re able to stay more attuned to what’s going on in the world. They’re so tech savvy.”
Rives didn’t begrudge modern troops their instant link to home, but said communication was once much slower. He stayed in touch with his wife Laura and daughter Susan by letter during long stints on the ocean.
“They flew the mail in,” said Rives, who now lives with Susan and her husband Charles.
Denight, on the other hand, Skyped from Iraq with his children and grandchildren.
Despite the difference in amenities between past wars and the ongoing conflict, one thing is the same, said the two veterans.
“You have a mission and you go out and do it,” Denight said, who met thousands of troops in the course of his Department of Defense and defense contractor work. He said America can be proud.
“They are so well trained. Nothing was left to chance,” Denight said. “They are all professionals. They are really, really good at what they do.”
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0810.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.