NATIONAL MINE — Bill Hager is a force to be reckoned with. His military service is unique because he served in two different branches before finally retiring.
Hager did a stint in the U.S. Navy as an electricians mate from 1963-67.
Then in 1977, he joined the U.S. Army serving from 1977-93 with the 107th Engineers, Active Guard Reserve retiring as a highly decorated Master Sergeant (E-8).
Based on his devotion to his country now, we imagine Hager jumped into military service voluntarily, but as he tells it, that’s not necessarily the case.
“I was not exactly a model citizen back in my late teenage years,” Hager recalls. I had a judge who gave me the choice of either going down to Milwaukee with a Navy recruiter or spend some time in jail. I was able to check up on that many, many years later and he wasn’t going to send me to jail, but it was a convincing argument that kind of tipped me over the edge. I was predisposed to military in the first place, due to my family history (and) heritage.
Hager went through electricians school in 1964, before the Vietnam conflict was at the forefront.
By 1965, the U.S. troop build-up started. Hager served on the U.S.S. Bayfield, a World War II troop transport that carried Marines from Okinawa to Vietnam and put them ashore at D’nang and Chu Lai.
Hager’s job during his first tour was that of a bow hook. He dropped the ramp to offload Marines and supplies. He said at some point he came to the realization that this experience was going to change everyone involved.
“We had put about 2,000 Marines ashore. After we offloaded the Marines I don’t know how many days, but it was days we were offloading the entire contents of the ship and other ships around us. And then we went onto the beach. Those of us who were aboard the landing craft were sometimes assigned as litter-bearers. So we would be picking up litters of the casualties who had already been through triage because we had a very large hospital on that troop transport. We had doctors, corpsman and even a few male nurses back then….” Hager said. “We also brought back many, many, many that were not wounded. We just brought them back aboard so that they could get a clean uniform and a shower and a few hot meals. Then we put them back ashore. But that’s when the reality of it hit me, when these guys still smelled like they were out in the bush. It permeated the whole ship and the mess hall, and you’d see their thousand-yard-stare and just the aura was overwhelmingly depressing.”
“It’s all adventure and all this great stuff where you are going to be a John Wayne hero. You are going to run that boat ashore, drop the ramp and watch all the marines run out and all of the sudden the reality hits – these people are getting killed. These people are getting shot at. You know, these people are different. When they were aboard ship before we put them ashore, they were joking and smiles and they came back and they weren’t the same people. And those of us on the ship were never the same either.“
The job was very demanding, Hager said, as the ship transported supplies to the front, and later vehicles like Jeeps and forklifts to transport the supplies once they they were delivered on land.
“And we just went back and forth, back and forth, back and forth,” Hager recalled. “No stop, no sleep until you were just exhausted and dropped on a pile of life jackets until somebody gave you a kick and said get up and get going again.”
Hagar said his second tour was different, with less and less amphibious landings the U.S. military turned its efforts to air assault helicopters that came off of a different type of a ship.
Hager’s second tour took him to Vietnam’s Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, where he was assigned to a salvage craft.
They were stationed on what they called the Dong Ha River.
“I had flunked out of Navy Diving School. And there was some old World War II Navy Chief that came for me and he said, “Come on Hager, you’re my diver….’
Hager said that chief would not take no for an answer.
“So I would jump in the river and there was a boat with a propeller with a rope around it and I would have to untangle that. Sometimes recover bodies, but not often, but every once and a while. And if a boat sunk, we’d be responsible for salvaging it if we could, or taking off of it what we had to,” Hager said. “There was no glory left at that time, it was just something you had to do. It wasn’t any fun anymore. First time I went over, I thought this might be fun. Second time, this wasn’t fun anymore. You just turned something off up here,” Hager pointed at his head, “and did what you had to do. And the other guys did what they had to do and we took care of each other.”
Hager’s return to ‘normal’ life in tumultuous political times was swift and eye opening.
“We left Vietnam on the 3rd of June and on the 6th of June I was sitting in a classroom at Northern Michigan University going to school on the GI Bill.” Hager said. “We had no decompression time, none.”
He said he remembers the names of the people in the front row to this day. One student, Norman was about 18, a freshman right out of high school. The instructor talking to the class about the peace movement that was occurring at the time.
“When I left San Fransico to go back to the U.P. They had told us, ‘Don’t wear your uniforms when you go to the airport because of the protestors.’ So, I had a bit of an attitude,” Hager said. ” And (this guy) Norman … started on about baby killers, drug addicts and what horrible people the Vietnam vets were. And I had listened to it for a while before I went right across the top of those three people in the front row grabbed a hold of Norman, shoved him up against the blackboard and I hauled off and I lambasted him one. Broke his nose, knocked out a couple of teeth. They called campus security and they hauled me away.”
They took Hagar to the director of security’s office and locked him in a room for what seemed like hours.
The security director was a veteran himself, so he understood why Hager had acted out.
“He said, ‘Well, I’ve talked to everybody involved and I can’t blame you…. but you can’t act that way. You’re not over there anymore, you’re here. And you gotta think about what you do. You can’t run around beating up on people….I am going to give you a warning, but you are on my radar. “
Hagar turned his attention to what he calls a very active NMU veterans club at the time. There were 70 to 100 veterans in the group who helped each other to cope and decompress.
He said the anti-war movement on campus at the time kept it’s distance from the veterans. “We were not respected, we were not liked,” Hager said. “We were a little bit older. And there was no bullshit about us. You know who we are, don’t mess with us. We lived in a world of protest, insulated or self-isolated. I guess it was mostly good. I know a lot of veterans didn’t have that advantage, or chose not to take that approach.”
During his time in the military, Hager earned the over two dozen awards including Army Service Ribbon; two National Defense Service Medals; Recruiter Badge; two Vietnam Service Medals; a Combat Action Medal; Meritorious Unit Citation; and seven Good Conduct medals.
He also holds lifetime membership in the AMVETS, DAV, VFW, VVA, Ishpeming Armory NCO Club, K.I. Sawyer NCO Club, Camp Grayling NCO Club, U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy Museum, National Guard HHC 49’s and the Marquette County Veterans Alliance.
Hager has morphed from soldier, to farmer to playwright. Over the years he actively served the community as a member of the Lions Club, Marquette County Youth Coalition, Marquette County Volunteer Fire Department, Ishpeming Board of Review, the non-profit One Love Brigade, Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteer, swim coach and volunteer meet referee in Gwinn and Marquette County, and the Marquette County Fair Association.
“Bill Hager makes a better place for veterans and the community by opening his home, property and finances to others,” stated the Marquette Veterans Alliance, which nominated him for the honor. “He has been a mentor, counselor and advocate for county veterans. He addresses such issues as PTSD and drug/alcohol addiction through a church group, providing work and therapy for veterans at his hobby farm for rescued miniature horses and donkeys.”