Heroes in our midst

The University of Utah continues its proud annual tradition of honoring 11 Utah Veterans on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, with a tribute video despite the pandemic. The fanfare of bagpipers leading a processional across campus and the 21-cannon-salute may be missed by many but continuing to recognize service members and veterans is still our honor and privilege.

The 2020 class of honorees includes three World War II veterans, six Korea/Vietnam veterans and two Iraq/Afghanistan veterans. They also represent the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Air National Guard. Among the honorees is one of only 30 remaining Women Air Force Service Pilots.

Watch the full tribute video below.

“The honorees for the U’s 23rd annual event are truly extraordinary individuals and every single one of them would tell you, ‘I just did what anyone else would do in the same situation,’” said Paul Morgan, director of the University of Utah's Veterans Support Center. “They are all the epitome of selfless service to their country and are true heroes among us.”

Each year the 11 honorees and Student Veteran of the Year receive a medallion during the ceremony. It’s hoped that a smaller more intimate event may be scheduled in alignment with public health guidelines surrounding COVID-19 in the spring of 2021 to honor these women and men.

The 2020 Student Veteran of the Year recipient is Navy veteran Jessica Garcia, who will complete a degree in Kinesiology-Exercise Science next semester. Garcia carries a cumulative 3.95 GPA and is currently applying for medical school at the University of Utah.

“My hope is that our U campus community will take the time to thank the service members and veterans in our lives. Their courage to serve, their commitment to our nation, and the sacrifices they’ve made deserve our gratitude,” said Morgan.


Petty Officer Second Class Jessica Garcia joined the Navy in August 2012. After boot camp, she received orders to the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) where she served as an aviation technician and earned a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, a Flag Letter of Commendation, Junior Sailor of the Quarter award, Air Warfare Specialist Pin, and Surface Warfare Specialist Pin.

In 2016, Garcia completed her service and began studying Kinesiology – Exercise Science at the University of Utah where she has distinguished herself through exceptional academic achievement and selfless service.  Her dedication to the success of other students while serving as a teaching assistant (TA) for both General Chemistry and Organic Chemistry earned her the TA of the Semester award in spring 2020, and her unwillingness to accept anything less than complete mastery of material has earned her a 3.95 GPA.

Garcia has been working as a research assistant in a Moran Eye Clinic laboratory that is exploring new ways to understand human retinal disease. Garcia has been doing research on connectivity changes in retinal blinding disease.

After her work was peer-reviewed and accepted, she presented it on the international stage during the Association for Research in Vision & Ophthalmology annual meeting.  Her presentation was so impressive that many in attendance assumed that Garcia was a graduate student.

For her capstone course, Garcia teaches an online Resistance Training for Health class that she developed.  The course helps senior citizens with their physical and mental health during the pandemic, when regularly scheduled activities and visits from family and friends are difficult.

Garcia said, “It was while I was in the Navy that I realized my love and dedication to serve others was truly my passion.” Her generous spirit extends beyond the campus.  She has volunteered at the Salt Lake County animal shelter and served as a site leader for Connect2Health, a volunteer-based organization that helps patients find community health resources.  She has also recruited other students to serve as volunteers.

Jessica Garcia, a first generation student and Navy veteran, plans to attend medical school and eventually practice medicine in underserved areas. She has made an indelible mark on many of those who know her at the U. Faculty and students have described her as caring, tenacious, bright, and exceptional, but one of her six nominators may have put it best in saying that she “exemplifies who we all should strive to be.”

Honor a Veteran. Submit your nomination here.

2020 Honorees

In 1948, Captain Ralph Milton enlisted in the Marine Corps, and two years later, he headed to the Korean peninsula for war. After arriving in Seoul, he became the driver for Colonel Olin Beale, commander of the First Motor Transport Battalion. The pair soon found themselves in below-freezing temperatures, entangled in the brutal battle at the Chosin Reservoir. As a Private First Class, Milton earned two Silver Star Medals for his “determined initiative, fortitude and cool courage in the face of grave peril” there.

He received the first one for taking an exposed position under intense enemy fire and neutralizing an enemy attack with relentless gunfire on November 3, 1950. His actions allowed a convoy to move forward and deliver vital supplies needed on the front lines.

Read the full bio here.

Colonel Gail “Hal” Halvorsen grew up watching planes soar over the family farm in Garland, Utah. Deciding to pursue his childhood dream, he earned his private pilot license through the Civilian Pilot Training Program and joined the newly formed Civil Air Patrol. In 1942, he joined the U.S.Army Air Corps. After fighter pilot training, he was assigned to the South Atlantic Theater to conduct foreign transport operations, where he delivered supplies throughout South America and South Africa during WWII.

In 1948, theSoviet Union formed a land blockade around Berlin. Western allies launched Operation Vittles and filled cargo planes with food, fuel, and other rations to help the nearly two million starving Germans during the 15-month humanitarian airlift. Halvorsen volunteered for the mission and was reassigned. One day, while waiting for his plane to be unloaded, Halvorsen saw a group of children lined up at the fence. He saw they were hungry. He recalled, “I reached into my pocket and pulled out all that I had: two sticks of gum.”He broke them in half and told them to share. They broke the gum into smaller pieces, and when it was gone, they sniffed the wrappers. He promised them that he would return the next day to drop a load of chocolate bars from the sky and told the children that he would “wiggle my wings so they’d know which pilot had the goods.”

Read the full bio here.

Born in Ohio and raised in Connecticut, Brigadier General Christine Burckle attended the Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics. She explained that she “would rather do math than read a lot and do reports.” Burckle wanted to be a pilot–a fighter pilot –but her vision disqualified her. Instead, she chose navigation and requested bombers, but at the time, women were not allowed to serve on combat bomber aircraft.

In 2016, about one-tenth of 1% of Air National Guard officers were female generals. On July 22, 2016, Burckle not only became one of them, but also became the first female promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in the history of the Utah National Guard. She served as the Assistant Adjutant General-Air, with responsibilities for the operational readiness of the UTANG.

Read the full bio here.

Lieutenant Colonel Fredrik M. Bergold always wanted to fly, so after high school he enrolled at Kenyon College and joined the Air Force ROTC. In 1959, Bergold completed pilot and helicopter training and then flew rescue helicopters in the Azores, Portugal, and at Luke AFB, Arizona.

In 1966, Bergold was assigned to Detachment 9, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Pleiku, Vietnam, where he flew the HH-43F Huskie helicopter. Air Force rescue pilots were adept in instrument flying, which enabled them to carry out many missions in bad weather and low visibility when others could not. As a Detachment 9 pilot, Bergold truly came to understand their motto, “These things we do, so that others may live."

Read full bio here.

When Corporal Kenneth “Kent” Brown was 20, he was about to board a train headed for Navy indoctrination when he and 30 others were informed that they had just volunteered for the Marines. Following boot camp, Brown reported to a machine gun platoon in the 5th Marine Division at Camp Pendleton. Soon after, Brown talked with the chaplain about a “Dear John” letter he received. When the chaplain learned that Brown could play the organ and lead a chorus, he became the chaplain’s assistant. Soon after, the division shipped out for the invasion of Iwo Jima.

On the first day, Brown was held back and helped carry wounded aboard ship. He said, “Many knew they were dying,”and many had last requests about what to send home, so Brown and the chaplain took great efforts to fulfill their requests. Under heavy fire on the second day, Brown carried desperately needed supplies to exhausted corps men and then spent that day carrying stretchers, giving morphine shots, and helping wounded any way he could. Looking at the casualties on the beach, Brown thought the battle was lost, but on the fourth day, he witnessed the raising of the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi. “We knew then we were going to win the battle.” The battle ended 31 days later.

Read the full bio here.

Lieutenant Colonel Jerold L. Jensen’s career began in 1957 when he enlisted in the Utah National Guard. In the Guard, he completed infantry officer, airborne, and jump master training, as well as the Special Forces Officer Qualification Course. As a Captain in 1968, Jensen volunteered for active duty as a Special Forces Officer, and he was assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam, serving as Commander, Special Forces Operational Detachment A-105and the Nong Son Civilian Irregular Defense Group (Strikers) Camp in I Corps Tactical Zone. Their mission was to fortify the camp defenses, equip and train the Striker units, and conduct interdiction missions against enemy forces moving towardsDa Nang.

On one of many night operations, Jensen’s patrol came under fire. Jensen moved through the heavy fire, deploying his forces and directing suppressive fire. Noticing three enemy soldiers pinned down, he ran down the trail “with complete disregard for his own safety” and captured one of the enemy fighters for interrogation. In1969, he attended the Infantry Officers Advanced Course and Army Flight School where he qualified on the U-21 aircraft.

Read the full bio here.

Master Sergeant Joseph Nagengast enlisted in the Air Force in 2000 and led a successful 18-year career as an airborne cryptologic linguist, electronic warfare operator, and host nation liaison. While serving in an operational role, he averaged over 180 deployment days each year and a willingness to serve more.

After completing two years of technical training, Nagengast found himself on back-to-back deployments to the Middle East, flying combat intelligence and reconnaissance missions over Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, Nagengast and his crew provided direct support reconnaissance to U.S. soldiers trapped by the Taliban. He and the crew provided battle space intelligence to ground forces and directed close air support. His actions allowed the elimination of the direct threat and led to the location of a substantial Taliban command and control cell. This mission and other operations earned him two Air Medals.

Read the full bio here.

When Nell Bright was 8 years old, her dad took her to see an old World War I biplane and paid a dollar for her to go on a flight. “It was the most glorious thing in the world,” she said. “I decided then that sometime in my life I was going to fly airplanes.”

Just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) program was formed. The program trained female pilots to test and ferry aircraft and to train other pilots in order to free male pilots for combat roles. Bright was one of 1,830 women accepted in the program for which 25,000 applied. WASP pilots completed the same basic and advanced training as males.“We had to learn how to fly the Army way,” Bright said. “It was a tough program.” She was one of only1,074 who earned their wings.

Read the full bio here.

Colonel Michele “Shelly” Schneeweis was 18 years old when she signed up for the Army. In 1969, she graduated St. Luke’s School of Nursing in Massachusetts and completed basic at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. While at Fort Polk, Louisiana, her fiancé deployed to Vietnam, so she volunteered for overseas duty and received orders to the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh, near Saigon.

In the medical ward, Schneeweis cared for patients with malaria, black water fever, and illnesses that she had never heard of before. Nurses needed to keep black water fever patients urinating frequently so they would not “plug up and die.” She lost her first soldier that way. She said, “It was hard not to take it to heart. You’re always thinking, ‘Could I have done more?’” She knew that her forte was working the ward, but she and other nurses often felt unappreciated because they were not working with combat wounded and “getting our hands bloody.”

Read the full bio here.

“Boy, something’s got to be done and it’s going to be up to us to do it.” These were the words of Master Sergeant Mark L. Heyrend, before joining the Army, as he drove through Malad, Idaho and heard about the infamous day of December 7, 1941. He will tell you that he was “just doing his job” alongside other Soldiers, but his expertise and work ethic earned him recognition from one of history’s greatest generals.

In May 1942, Heyrend, age 24, reported for induction into the Army in Pocatello, Idaho and then to Fort Douglas, after which he would be assigned as a cadre to desert training in California. There was an immense amount of “unknown” regarding what job, unit, or location to which one would be assigned. As soon as the Army found out Heyrend could type 120 words per minute and knew shorthand, they transferred him to headquarters staff for the 7th Army Division. In one of his first experiences at headquarters, Heyrend was about to enter the operations room when a general burst out of the doors, nearly knocking him over. Heyrend asked,“Who in the world is that joker?” He was told, “Watch your tongue, Soldier. That’s ol’ blood and guts Patton!” This was the same Patton from which Heyrend would find himself taking dictation. The Army issued Heyrend a combat jacket, a Thompson, and a Remington portable typewriter. Heyrend knew this was no ordinary office job because he had a front row seat to the planning of four D-Days and the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Naples, and southern France.

Read the full bio here.

As a graduate student at Georgia Southern College in 1969, Colonel James “Jim” Dooley joined the Marine Corps. After graduation in August 1969, he completed Officer Candidate School, then the Naval Flight Officer Course, before being qualified as a Bombardier/Navigator (B/N) in the A-6 Intruder. In June 1972, he received orders to “The Rose Garden,” an austere air base in Nam Phong, Thailand.

As part of an all-weather A-6 Intruder attack squadron, Dooley conducted aerial combat missions in South Vietnam, Laos, and North Vietnam, to interdict and destroy convoys providing troops and supplies to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) before they could reach the Ho Chi Minh Trail. His squadron’s “highway patrol” operations greatly reduced the NVA’s ability to conduct operations deep into South Vietnam and helped hasten peace talks in 1973. Dooley said his “most memorable feeling from serving in combat” comes from a July 1972 mission to engage enemy forces south of the demilitarized zone. The aircrews were briefed that anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) reportedly was “somewhere” in the area. Flying in the wingman aircraft, Dooley saw the lead A-6 roll in, then saw a flash and explosion, as the lead Intruder was hit by AAA. The pilot was killed, and the B/N ejected. It was painful to return to base, not knowing his status or being able to help recover him. Although he flew many more sorties unharmed, Dooley was severely injured when the Jeep he was in hit a water buffalo. Dooley was ejected from the vehicle and suffered a skull fracture, ending his flying service. He was released from active duty in 1973.

Read the full bio here.