BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — When Mike Wholehan walked into the Whitehouse American Legion for the Task Force 20 Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home lunch on March 26, he quickly found himself among friends.
“We’re all the same vintage with all the same experience,” he said. “It’s easy to relate.”
Task Force 20 hosted the event just a few days before the National Vietnam War Veterans Day on March 29 – the date in 1975 when the last U.S. combat troops departed Vietnam.
“It’s our way of saying thank you. We want to recognize the sacrifices that the Vietnam generation made. So many in our generation receive the benefits because of what those Vietnam veterans did,” said Task Force 20 founder Jason Graven, a 1998 Anthony Wayne High School graduate who enlisted in the Army shortly after 9/11.
Wholehan was in ROTC at Youngstown State University, where he completed his degree in business in 1970. While serving in ROTC guaranteed him the rank of second lieutenant when he entered the Army, Wholehan wasn’t thrilled with his assignment: processing the bodies of those killed in the war.
“I hopped in my red Corvair and drove from Pittsburgh to the Pentagon,” he recalled. He asked the officer in charge of assignments if he could instead be assigned to officers’ club management.
“He pulled out a card from a file and said there was an opening,” he said.
As a quartermaster, Wholehan managed the clubs and food service in nine locations in Germany.
“It was essentially running a series of restaurants,” he said. “There were many applications to what I learned in school – like managing people and accounting.”
When he returned home in 1975, Wholehan was aware that public sentiment had changed toward military personnel.
“It was weird. It almost felt like we were treated like criminals. I was serving my country, but there was no respect for the people coming back,” Wholehan said.
Like many Vietnam veterans, Don Hensley doesn’t like to recall the unwelcome return that many faced, but he understands how parents were frustrated that their sons were being drafted and they had no choice.
“We fought 20 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, and no one was drafted,” he said, noting that many Task Force 20 members have voluntarily served several tours of duty. “They were taking sons and drafting them, and you didn’t have a say.”
A Libbey High School graduate, Hensley was drafted into the Army but instead enlisted in the Marine Corps. He had two friends who were recent trade school graduates who thought it would be a good idea to join the Marines together through their buddy program – ensuring they would know someone they were serving with. One of his friends flunked the physical due to a sprained ankle, so Hensley and the other friend headed to Vietnam in 1967 without him. Thankfully, both returned safely.
Task Force 20 is a nonprofit that was formed by Graven in 2016 in response to the 20 or more veterans who succumb to suicide daily. Funding gym memberships allows veterans dealing with the symptoms of PTSD and depression to experience the healthy outlet of physical fitness while bonding with peers.
The organization also offers several programs each year, including the Saturday, May 6 Tee Off for Vets golf outing at Eagles Landing Golf Club and the Military Appreciation Night at the Whitehouse Cherry Festival on Thursday, June 8 at Whitehouse Park.
Operation: Stronger Together features a PTSD Awareness Day event in Whitehouse Park on Sunday, June 25 with a 5K and the Gaven A. Smith Veteran Resource Fair.
It was through Operation: Stronger Together that Hensley’s wife, Maggie, first began volunteering with Task Force 20. Wholehan, too, is now volunteering his financial skills for the nonprofit after meeting Graven during a speaking engagement at Anthony Wayne Local Schools.
For more information on how to volunteer, support or participate in Task Force 20, visit tf20.org.