Interviews for a vacancy on the Barry County Veterans Affairs committee involved five candidates, all veterans, and a tough choice Tuesday for commissioners who could pick only one.
At the board’s committee of the whole meeting – which just happened to take place 80 years after the day 2,403 Americans lost their lives during the attack on Pearl Harbor – commissioners focused their attention on service as they questioned candidates.
The interviews wove a collective account of experience in war and peace by five men who applied for the opening: Scott Baker of Hastings, Robert Geyer of Middleville, Martin Kretovic of Woodland, Dennis Mapes of Nashville, and Mike Timmons of Bellevue. Shawn Ricketts of Hastings also applied, but was ill and unable to participate in the interview, county board Chairman Ben Geiger said.
Timmons is the incumbent chairman of the Veterans Affairs committee. His term expires this month, creating the vacancy.
By the end of Tuesday’s meeting, in a voice vote, commissioners agreed to recommend Timmons to return to the post. But they took some time to think about it.
An impressive slate of applicants made their decision difficult, several commissioners said, since they didn’t want to discourage the others from getting involved in county boards and committees.
The current committee has five members, Carla Wilson Neil, Tim McKay, Michael Spangler and Shannon Alexander Szukala.
On Jan. 24, 2017, the county board increased the committee from three to five members. It was noted Tuesday that this number could go as high as seven, although no commissioner proposed doing that.
Wilson Neil, a U.S. Air Force Vietnam War-era veteran whose four-year term on the Veterans Affairs committee started Jan. 1, spoke briefly to commissioners during the meeting’s first public comment segment: “I believe you received a letter with our comments and thoughts.
“With all due respect to everybody, and we’re very appreciative of everyone interested in serving, we would like to support the incumbent, Mike Timmons. Thank you very much. We appreciate the consideration.”
Mike Timmons was the last candidate for the position to speak to the commissioners Tuesday. His remarks, spoken slowly in his deep Texas drawl, were concise.
“My name is Mike Timmons. I was born in Texas. My wife is from Michigan. So, I live in Michigan.”
He paused as listeners laughed.
“I spent 20 years in the Navy,” he continued. “Was in ‘Nam off and on from 1964 to 1974. After about the 125th combat mission and patrol, I stopped counting them. Went to Grand Valley College and got a degree in public administration.
“While there, I was a reserve deputy sheriff in Ottawa County. I had a couple of kids, was a Scout leader, Red Cross worker, retired from the Federal Center here in Battle Creek, lay speaker for the Methodist Church, 16 years as Assyria Township supervisor.
“Generally speaking, I’ve had a good life – a lot of which is helping people. I think one of my greatest pleasures in life is having the good feeling that I get when I’m able to help somebody.
“And you can help people all different kinds of ways. I learned that starting as a deputy sheriff, through the Red Cross, through working at Salvation Army, and through being a township supervisor. People come up with all kind of problems that, if you look at them, you can give ’em help.”
Timmons said his service since 2015 on the county Veterans Affairs committee has provided him with opportunities to help veterans in many ways.
“If a veteran comes in, we can not only help him through the Michigan Veterans Trust Fund, we can help him with other facilities that the county has available.”
Scams often prey on veterans, he noted.
“One of the things we have to be alert to is some folks like to get stuff that they really don’t rate. And sometimes it’s hard to tell what it is you have before you, when you’re looking at the paper and you have to sort of read between the lines … I’ve enjoyed being able to do that. I think I’ve done it well. I’d like to continue doing it. It’s as simple as this.”
Commissioner Bruce Campbell praised Timmons’ work, saying, “Thank you for your service, not only to the military, but to the community. You’ve done amazing things, always contributing. …Your feelings and mine are exactly the same. Nothing makes you feel better than to improve the quality of life and helping other people. I appreciate that, Mike.”
Commissioner Jon Smelker added that he’s known Timmons since Smelker became a county commissioner.
“One of your best traits is listening; you do it well,” Smelker said.
Geiger recalled that, at one of the first municipal meetings he ever attended, in Assyria Township, “the crowd got a little rowdy.”
That’s when Supervisor Timmons took the situation in hand, he said, mimicking Timmons’ Texas drawl, “‘Boy, I’ve heard about enough of you.’”
Geiger paused, then emphasized Timmons hadn’t been speaking to him.
“It wasn’t me,” he insisted, adding, “I’d still be worried if it was.”
Turning back to Timmons, Geiger said, “You’ve given a lot of time to your country and this county, and we want to find a way to keep you involved.”
The board didn’t take a voice vote until later in the meeting.
But the interviews were the third item on a lengthy agenda, beginning with Baker, who said he was an 18-year-old kid when he joined the U.S. Air Force.
“I served 27 years-plus … went through basic training, then out to work on F-16s. It taught me great skills, how to lead.”
Baker said he spent 12 years as a commissioned officer, managing fleets of planes and people.
“I have led aircraft maintenance organizations of 300-plus personnel and 31 aircraft and was responsible for aircraft maintenance training,” he wrote in his application. “I have experience leading joint services as well.
“I have been a member of the United States Air Force ‘Thunderbirds’ and have deployed around the world supporting military and humanitarian missions. I have deployed in support of combat operations in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.”
Baker, who lives in Baltimore Township, moved to Barry County in 2016. He works full-time now as customer order and fulfillment manager with GE Aviation.
He said he was looking for ways to give back when he noticed this opportunity.
After Baker’s presentation, Geiger went around the table, letting commissioners ask any questions.
“Hi Scott,” Campbell, a Vietnam War-era veteran, said, telling Baker he didn’t know who would be picked to fill the vacancy, but that there were other opportunities for public service.
“There are many other boards in our county; I became aware of that when I became a commissioner,” Campbell said. “Keep that in mind. [I] really appreciate your coming in.”
Geyer, who currently is serving on a county task force to recommend projects that qualify for American Rescue Plan Act funds, a retired Certified Public Accountant and former partner with Crowe LLP, a top 10 accounting/consulting firm, said he was born and raised in Wabash, Ind., which is about the same size as Barry County.
“I graduated from Purdue University and decided that someday I might want to own my own business,” he said. “I went on to Indiana University to get my master’s when I was drafted.”
That was during the Vietnam War.
“I asked the draft board if I could finish the semester, since I had already applied and paid for it. They said, ‘Nope.’ So, I went down and enlisted for officers’ candidate school.”
Geyer trained as a combat engineer and, because he ended up in the top 10 percent, he could choose his branch. “I chose to get out of combat,” he said.
He became an adjutant general.
“I got my orders for Vietnam, two hours after my daughter was born. I went through a number of interviews. A colonel interviewed me, and he asked me if I could write.”
He got the job. It was called “Chief of Special Actions.”
Everything in combat came under that responsibility, Geyer said. He was responsible for awards and decorations; he wrote the citations.
“Commanders from all over the country would call me up, saying, ‘Hey, a guy did this. What do you think he’d be good at – or could get good at?’”
Another area of expertise for him was congressional inquiries.
“I received about 45 congressional inquiries a month,” he recalled.
These were questions posed by congressmen, senators or even the president of the United States; and it could be provoked by just about anything.
An example Geyer gave was that somebody complained about a meal.
“One guy in jail said: ‘I was in an 8-by-8 [foot] cell, and the food was awful.’ So, I went to the jail and it wasn’t 8-by-8, it was 6-by- 8 – and the food was awful. And that’s how I responded to the congressman.”
Geyer and his team had two weeks to respond to an inquiry from a congressman, one week to reply to a senator and three days to reply to the president.
In the process of their inquiry, they had to get the facts.
Geiger asked if he had ever responded to a presidential inquiry.
“Yes, I did. We had a captain who committed suicide. Four or five hours before he committed suicide, he wrote a letter to his mother saying that he was getting his first company command the next day and how excited he was. And then, at 4 o’clock in the morning, he committed suicide. We didn’t know anything about the first letter.”
“I did all the casualty reporting,” Geyer recalled. “It was my responsibility to write the letter for the commanding general of the brigade to the next of kin. For that, they wanted us to get a full history, so I could be empathetic, know what their background was, and how they died and explain that to the next of kin.
“In that particular case, I wrote it up. … No question it was suicide. I wrote the letter, it was sent off. Within about a week, all of a sudden, we had a little ticker thing there and we got [inquiries from] four congressmen, two senators and a presidential – all on that one [case].
“So as soon I got those, I called command headquarters. He said, ‘This is bigger than both of us.” We got the inspector general’s office. And they sent over a colonel to investigate.”
Their findings were the same.
What Geyer said he found most difficult in this work is that “War, to me, is personal.”
“When I came back [home], it was very hard for me to ever see a war movie because everybody who was killed in war movies was people.”
One of the interesting aspects most people didn’t realize is that, by 1971, when he was there, he said, the Vietnam War was winding down.
“We had no combat casualties,” he said. “They were either accidents, drug overdoses, suicides or murders. And those were the [letters] I had to write to kin. That gave me a very personal interest in those.
“And, when you came back from Vietnam, you were not treated all that well, but you keep in touch with your buddies and build them up.”
As the commissioners went around the table and thanked him for his service, Campbell greeted him by name: “Morning, Robert. I would just like to say thank you for your service. I have an inkling of what you dealt with in your life and appreciate it very much.”
Kretovic, born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., is a Cornell University graduate with a bachelor of science degree in agriculture who had served as a county agent there for a while before being drafted into the Army in 1968.
“I was in in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970,” he told commissioners. “I went over there in the infantry. To my good fortune, they put me in the construction engineers at the time. They asked me if I could type. I said, ‘Yes,’ I could type, which I learned in seventh grade. I ended up being company clerk at the end of my tour there. I was very fortunate that I didn’t have to go in the infantry.”
After the service, he visited Michigan to see another veteran he had served with and decided to stay here. He owned a dairy farm for 10 years and worked for a grain and feed elevator for the past 20 years before retiring in 2015.
He volunteers at MacKenzie’s Animal Sanctuary near Lake Odessa.
“I walk dogs there,” he said. “That helps me get over having a pet.”
He also drove for American Red Cross and Hope Network, transporting veterans around to different appointments. “I enjoyed that, where I could be one-on-one with another veteran who had some problems, either medically or mentally.”
“So, when this came along. I figured, ‘I’m in good health, it’s been 50 years since I’ve been in the service. It’s time to do something else to help other veterans in the area … less-fortunate than me.’
“Thank you very much for your service,” said Smelker, a veteran who was stationed in Korea during the Vietnam War. “… I do want to say that you being company clerk, in our company, our company clerk ran the company and made sure everything went well. I know there’s commanders there, but the clerk made sure everything went right.”
Kretovic confirmed, “They gave me the Army Commendation Medal for service at the end of my tour.”
“Thank you. You must have done a good job.” Smelker replied.
“I too want to thank you, first of all, for your service,” Campbell told Kretovic. “It sounds like you were in (the) country about same time as I was. Even though you didn’t get on the battlefield, I think everyone should be aware that you were willing to do whatever it took. And I thank you very much for that.”
Mapes said he lives in Assyria Township on a farm that has been in his family more than 100 years. He grew up in Battle Creek and spent summers on Thornapple Lake.
He enlisted in the Navy in 1967 and served during the Vietnam War, when he participated in search-and-rescue duty in the Gulf of Tonkin – most of the time off North Vietnam.
“In cases where pilots ejected, we would pick them up,” he said.
They stood watch and had the opportunity to visit ports to refuel and replenish supplies.
“After coming back from Vietnam, I was sent to Washington, D.C., to work at the Pentagon for the office of the Chief of Naval Operations for two years,” he recalled. “When I got out of the Navy, a recruiter kept calling me, calling me. Finally, I had the urge and took the call. I enlisted in the reserves. I stayed on active duty on reserve time about 25 years.”
In the reserves, he was with a NATO unit, doing exercises in Europe, particularly at their headquarters in Brussels.
His next active-duty stint came in 2006 when he was sent to Kuwait and Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“That was my windsong,” Mapes told commissioners. “I was glad I did it. So, I retired from the Navy.”
After that, he had a civilian job, working for 43 years for the Kellogg Co. and retiring from there.
Now he is the commander of VFW Post 8260 in Nashville.
“We’re a struggling organization. Younger veterans don’t want to join.”
So, they’re working hard to reach out to veterans.
“So many people out there that want to take advantage of vets,” he remarked. “It’s just great to be able to help people.”
Smelker thanked him for keeping the post going.
“Thank you for, really, a lifetime of service,” Commissioner Catherine Getty said. “It sounds like an impressive assortment of ways you’ve figured out to serve your country and community.”
Mapes is a past trustee and village president for Nashville and also is active in his church.
“Thank you, Denny,” Geiger told him, “I had no idea you had such a rich background, and it took you overseas. We appreciate your service.”
“It was an opportunity, and it was on the government’s dime,” Mapes replied. “And I’m glad that I had the opportunity to see as much as I did. It makes you appreciate what we have.”