U.P. veteran takes helping others to next stage

William “Bill” Hager of National Mine was named 2018 Marquette County Veteran of the Year in a ceremony on Friday at VFW Post #3165 in Negaunee Friday evening. (Journal photo by Corey Kelly)

MARQUETTE — Anyone who has ever worked on a project with Bill Hager knows he is both a force to be reckoned with and full of surprises.

The Marquette County Veteran of the Year who has dedicated his time to service of veterans and others across the Upper Peninsula has written a play. “The Brain Trust,” which premieres at the Vista Theater in Negaunee on Thursday, follows four boys’ coming of age in the Vietnam War era through the stages of their lives, highlighting the hurdles faced by military veterans with humor and grit.

Hager earned numerous military awards including the Meritorious Service Medal, Combat Action Ribbon and Vietnam Campaign Medal throughout his military career, which included two terms in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy before he went on to serve nearly two decades at the Army National Guard post in Ishpeming before his retirement in 1993.

Hager said he and three of his friends, including his foster brother, chose to join the ranks of military service after getting into some legal trouble in Iron River in 1963.

“I was involved in some misadventures and the judge gave me a choice — 30 days rent-free in the county jail or actually boot camp in the Navy,” Hager said.

His military service introduced him to heavy responsibility at a young age. After attending boot camp, Hager went through electricians school at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois.

“I was stationed aboard the USS Bayfield, which wasn’t an attack troop transport left over from World War II,” Hager said. “My primary job when we were steaming was the engine room electrician, I was responsible for all the electrical room motors that ran the entire ship — operation maintenance, downtime maintenance — everything that had to do with making that work. At 19 years old, I was responsible for the lives of 450 crewmen and another 200 troops plus millions of dollars of ships property if those pumps failed while we were at sea. At the time I did not recognize what a huge responsibility that was.”

His responsibilities went beyond engine operation and maintenance on the troop ship which included a small hospital equipped with doctors and nurses, he said.

“My first tour, I was the guy that let the ramp down and picked it back up on the old World War II Higgins boats’ landing craft,” Hager said. “I had some rather traumatic experiences doing that, including casualty recovery after we offloaded, having to pick up some of the casualties and bring them back.”

After going through a variety of jobs on the ship that had to do with electricity, Hager said he got promoted and became a section leader before coming back to the United States.

“We spent the whole of 1965 in Vietnam, and then I went to divers’ school, and I flunked,” Hager chuckled. “Out of a class of 250 I was 116, and they only graduated 50. They said if you can’t survive in a pool with people on your side, how are you going to survive with people who aren’t on our side.”

Despite the opinions of his instructors, Hager became a salvage diver on the Dong Ha River which runs along the demilitarized zone or DMZ dividing North Vietnam and South Vietnam.

“I was detached from the ship to run a Marine Corps power station at the mouth of the river,” Hager said. “And there was this salty old World War II crew chief who came looking for me and he said, ‘Are you Hager?’ and I said ‘ya.’ He said ‘You are coming aboard my salvage craft as a diver.’ I said ‘I flunked out of diver’s school.’ He said, ‘Don’t give me that … you are my diver.’ So I was on a salvage craft patrolling the river. We were pulling boats that had gone aground off and if it was tangled in a line or rope I had to go under water and undo that.”

Although Hager said he was never involved in a firefight, the salvage boat did take fire.

“We knew where it was coming from and at times we returned fire, but it wasn’t actually that they were shooting at you,” Hager said.

After returning home in June of 1967, Hager went to school on the G.I. Bill at Northern Michigan University. He remained in the Naval Reserve to the National Guard for 10 years before serving at the National Guard Station in Ishpeming for 17 years before he retired.

Since then Hager has triumphed over one adverse situation after another, including several automobile accidents and a house fire. And despite those challenges, Hager has been a leader within the community.

Craig Salo, director of the Marquette County Department of Veterans Affairs, described Hager, in part, as having an “unwavering volunteer spirit” and “consistent dedication to taking care of veterans and their family members.”

“Bill is no stranger to adversity,” Salo said. “He has fought against the odds with significant medical issues, life threatening automobile accidents, combat service in Vietnam, and the unfortunate loss of his family home from fire in National Mine. He is a survivor and his ability to educate and support veterans is forged in his own life story. Bill has dedicated his adult life to the service of veterans and others within Marquette County and across the Upper Peninsula. Bill is a life member of the DAV, American Legion, VFW, Vietnam Veterans of America, and AMVETS. His has served in and led multiple non-profit organizations within Marquette County and is well respected as a mentor, counselor and advocate for veterans and their family members.”

Salo said the fact that Hager has written a play is not really a surprise to him.

“I have personally witnessed Bill’s benevolence, compassion, love and support for veterans, and his play “The Brain Trust” is a continuation of his efforts to increase our community’s understanding of veterans issues and challenges we face returning home from combat service.”

Performances of the play will run for two weeks starting at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday. The run will continue on May 23-24 at 7 p.m. with the final performance at 2 p.m. May 25.

Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for active military and veterans, seniors and students kndergarten through grade 12 and will be sold at Snowbound Books in Marquette, Midtown Bakery in Negaunee and Rare Earth Goods in Ishpeming and online at www.vistatheater.org.