The University of Utah honored 11 Utah veterans and awarded the Student Veteran of the Year at the 24th Annual Veterans Day Commemoration Ceremony, Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021. The tribute held in the A. Ray Olpin Union Building ballroom is one of a series of events planned throughout the week to honor veterans. Events included a movie night, a virtual presentation on identifying America’s unknown soldiers using evolving DNA technologies and a student-sponsored bowling tournament.
The commemoration ceremony was preceded by a bagpipe procession from the J. Willard Marriott Library Plaza to the Union at 10:30 a.m. Nominations came from across the state, and the 11 veterans honored received a commemorative medallion on stage at the ceremony. Honorees from the 2020 cohort were also invited to attend this in-person event since the pandemic delayed the ceremony last year.
“This year’s ceremony has been doubly rewarding for campus because we were able to honor both the 2021 and 2020 honorees in person,” said Paul Morgan, director of the Veterans Support Center. “The past two years have been difficult for many reasons for so many people. These honorees provide extraordinary examples of the American spirit that emerges in challenging times. They give us hope that any trial can be overcome when individuals come together and sacrifice for the greater good.”
Army ROTC Cadet Sydney Garcia led the ceremony conducted by cadets from the Army, Naval, and Air Force ROTCs. Sterling Paulsen, an Air Force veteran, KUTV meteorologist and Veterans Day Commemoration Committee member narrated the medallion presentation. Gov. Spencer Cox and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney also provided remarks during the program and gave thanks to all service men and women from all branches of service and all conflicts.
The Student Veteran of the Year was awarded to Alex Penegar in recognition of his achievements in the classroom and his volunteer work both on and off campus. Graduating in December 2021, Penegar will receive a B.S. in Kinesiology, with minors in chemistry and psychology. Penegar has volunteered with the Student Health Advisory Committee, Student Veterans at Utah—two campus organizations—and Anatomy Academy, which teaches human anatomy, physiology and nutrition to fifth and sixth graders at Salt Lake Arts Academy. After graduation Penegar intends to apply for medical school.
A pre-recording of the Utah National Guard’s 66th Annual Veterans Day Concert, featuring the 23rd Army Band and high school choirs from the Granite School District performing an array of patriotic songs can be viewed here.
Utah Athletics will recognize service men and women from all branches of service at a special halftime show during the Utah vs. Oregon football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 20. At the game, Utah Football will shine a light on the history of the World War II-era heavy cruiser the USS Salt Lake City and its forgotten remarkable story. Created specifically for the game, the commemorative uniforms feature the distinctive camouflage design from the warship that earned 11 battle stars. Learn about the design elements and more here.
The 2021 honorees:
As a teenager, Major General Jeff Burton carried around a copy of the Constitution in his pocket every day. In 1982, he enlisted in the Utah Army National Guard to “support and defend the Constitution” as part of the 140th Field Artillery Battalion. After becoming a Distinguished Military Graduate from Brigham Young University (BYU) ROTC program in 1984, he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant. Burton served six years on active duty in the Military Police Corps, with assignments in the 204th Military Police Company in Europe and 4th Infantry Division in Colorado. He returned to the Utah Guard and transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers in 1991. In assignments that followed, he served as an Operations Officer, Logistics Officer, Company Commander, Intelligence Officer, Plans Officer, and Executive Officer in multiple engineer units, as an Assistant Professor of Military Science at BYU, and as the Commanding Officer of the Guard’s Recruiting and Retention Battalion.
In August 2002, Burton took command of the 1457th Engineer Combat Battalion, which deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in February 2003. The battalion neutralized improvised explosive devices, destroyed thousands of munitions buried across the country, and built and repaired bridges across the Tigris River. They worked while snipers targeted them and temperatures were as high as 148 degrees. Despite the harsh hostile conditions, Burton brought all 450 of his Soldiers home. Some were wounded, but remarkably none were lost.
Marine Corps Master Sergeant Julia Watson Carlson qualified for nationals three times as a junior member of the Utah State Association shooting team. She recalled being impressed by the skills, presence, and uniforms of the military teams. As a 17 year old at nationals, she unexpectedly had to pay her entry fees from funds she had saved to buy a shooting jacket. As word got out, the Marines pooled their money and bought her one. The USMC team won everything that year, and Carlson distinctly remembers saying to herself, “I want to earn the title of Marine; I want someone to see me the way I see them.” She enlisted in the Marine Corps her senior year of high school.
Carlson trained as a heavy equipment mechanic, but after a stiff selection process eventually secured her spot on the Marine Corps Shooting Team where she was both competitor and instructor. In fact, her on-the-spot meritorious promotion to Corporal by the Commandant of the Marine Corps took place on a shooting range during competition. After eight years on active duty, she transferred to the Marine Reserves, where she continued to compete and teach marksmanship skills to active and reserve Marines around the country, youth, civilian groups, law enforcement, and other military service branches.
Lieutenant Colonel Wallace Gatrell enlisted in the Utah National Guard in 1938. Except for a brief gap following World War II, he served in the Army as an ROTC cadet, enlisted Soldier, warrant officer, and commissioned officer, mostly in field artillery and then finance, until he retired in 1972.
Gatrell began attending the University of Utah as an ROTC cadet in fall 1938, but his studies were interrupted in March 1941 when the 145th Field Artillery Battalion was called to active duty. On December 23, the battalion arrived in Hawaii as the first reinforcements following the attack on Pearl Harbor. They emplaced artillery to defend the island against any Japanese landings. In fall 1942, Gatrell became a Warrant Officer, and soon after, the 145th took part in numerous key battles and campaigns including the Battles of Kwajalein, Saipan, Tinian, the Philippines, and Okinawa. Gatrell jokes that his most serious injuries were on Saipan, where he cut his finger with his own bayonet and a centipede bit him. At the end of the war, Gatrell left the military, but he reenlisted six months later in 1946.
Born in southern Utah, Command Sergeant Major Michael Miller enlisted in the U.S. Army in September 1987, and completed Basic Combat and Advanced Individual Training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Southern Utah is artillery country and home of the 2nd Battalion, 222nd Field Artillery, Utah Army National Guard, where Mike served in nearly every organizational position from motor transport driver to unit supply sergeant to battalion training NCO. In 1990, Miller entered the Active Guard Reserve program and continued to serve in positions of increasing responsibility including Master Gunner, First Sergeant, and Brigade Operations Sergeant.
After mobilizing in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Noble Eagle in 2003, Miller was assigned to Fort Lewis, WA, in support of Cadet Command’s Leader Development Advanced Camp. In 2004, he deployed for eighteen months in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom as First Sergeant for A Battery, 2nd Battalion, 222nd Field Artillery. The battery was stationed in Ramadi in the Anbar Province of western Iraq and was responsible for providing artillery support for main supply route security, forward operating base defense, and direct artillery support across the brigade combat team and division. For its performance during this deployment, A Battery was awarded the Hamilton Award in 2006, recognizing it as the best field artillery battery in the National Guard.
While attending grade school in Rose Park, Utah, Sergeant Gregory Orton decided that he was going to be a Soldier, and in 2004, right after high school graduation, he enlisted in the Army reserves and became a Combat Engineer.
Orton was about to request a transfer to active duty when his unit received word that they were deploying. Thinking, “I didn’t want to jump ship on my unit,” he put off his request until after the deployment. The 321st Engineer Battalion deployed to Ramadi in 2006, where Orton served as a team lead, improvised explosive device (IED) spotter, gunner, and RG-31 mine-resistant vehicle driver. His team conducted dangerous route-clearing operations and found IEDs almost daily, often two or three at a time. When he returned from the deployment, the Army was not entertaining transfers to active duty.
Major Mike Perkins joined the Army to be a paratrooper. After basic, he went to parachute school and joined the 101st Airborne. Later, after a year on the eastern German border, he was selected for Officer Candidate School. He graduated and spent a year with the 2d Armored Division in Texas before Special Forces training.
In 1966 Perkins made it to Vietnam for his first tour where he entered combat with a Special Forces A-Team. He worked with Marines and Project Delta, and then led Mike Force operations with Australians and Chinese along the border with North Vietnam. On his second tour, he worked some “pretty interesting operations” with the 101st Airborne and a long-range patrol company. After that, the Army sent him stateside for advanced infantry training. On his third tour, he was assigned to the 9th Infantry Division and given command of a rifle company in the Riverine Force, all draftees. Living on Navy ships, his troops performed airmobile and amphibious assaults along the Mekong Delta.
In 1968, as President Nixon told Americans that the U.S. was not conducting operations in Cambodia, Army Warrant Officer 1 Robert Poast thought, “That’s funny. I just spent my entire day there.” At the time, Poast was a UH-1H Huey pilot in the 155th Assault Helicopter Company at Camp Coryell in South Vietnam.
A native of Columbus, Poast joined the Ohio National Guard in 1964, took some classes, and then worked at a company building aircraft. In 1968, a friend enticed him to enroll at Brigham Young University, but the draft cut his studies short in September. While awaiting orders at Fort Ord, California, Poast, who had obtained his pilot’s license in Utah, applied for the Army’s flight program, and he was accepted.
Lieutenant Colonel Everett Rowles enlisted in the Army in 1968 as an Ear, Nose, and Throat Technician. Because he was also qualified as a Combat Medic, he was sent to Vietnam in March 1969 and assigned to the 5th/46th Infantry, Americal Division.
After being in country just six weeks, on 1 May, Rowles found himself with two platoons under intense enemy fire and taking casualties. As he moved through the platoons treating the wounded, it became apparent that they were in the middle of a minefield. With complete disregard for his own safety, he continued to move from casualty to casualty. As Rowles treated the wounded men, a Soldier detonated an enemy booby trap and badly wounded several more men to include Rowles. Despite mines all around him, Rowles immediately moved to the men and administered life-saving treatment. For these actions, which saved the lives of several comrades, he received a Bronze Star Medal with “V” device for valor.
Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Sperry enlisted in the Army in Springville, Utah in 1975. Sperry became a medic, and eventually, he was trained and qualified as a Special Forces (Green Beret) medic. He served in many locations, including the Arctic, where he trained with other SF Soldiers for the interdiction of Soviet forces. In July 1986, Sperry was commissioned as a Special Forces officer, and was assigned to the 19th Special Forces Group, Utah Army National Guard. For the next several years, Sperry served on multiple Special Forces Operational Detachments within the group.
Sperry received a master’s degree in Physician Assistant Studies from the University of Utah in 2001, and in September 2002, he received orders to the United States Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) Afghanistan. As part of the JSOC, he drew upon his medical skills and experience to help refine Tactical Combat Casualty Care (TCCC) and field it to the Special Operations community. The TCCC comprises advanced field medical procedures designed to increase the survivability of combat casualties. It includes proper use of tourniquets on the battlefield. The TCCC is credited for exponentially reducing the numbers of combat fatalities among Special Operations forces and regular ground forces alike. Sperry also assisted in developing advanced trauma surgical procedures that enable life-saving emergency surgeries to begin aboard aircraft while transporting casualties to medical facilities. Countless lives and limbs have been saved as a result of Sperry’s expertise and commitment to better care for casualties.
As a youth, Army Sergeant First Class Travis Vendela tagged along with his Guardsman father to military events and weekend maneuvers. At 12, he could fieldstrip a Browning M2 .50 caliber machine gun. During his senior year, he began thinking about his future realizing he wanted to be part of something greater than himself. College did not appeal to him, but the military did. Joining the Army was an easy decision.
Vendela did one-station training and ended up as “19 Delta, Cav Scout, recon, looking for bad guys.” He was assigned to Recon Platoon 3-8 Cavalry, part of the 1st Cavalry Division. Sniper school sharpened his skills in shooting, spotting, and survival. After the 9/11 attacks, Vendela became more “Soldier focused,” working his teams hard, training relentlessly, and practicing constantly. “Once you knew you were going to deploy, everything from that point on was going to make a difference if you lived or died,” Vendela said. “Losing one of my Soldiers became my biggest fear, bringing them all home alive became my biggest responsibility.”