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A life of service: Veteran of three wars, local man now works for community

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Columbus resident Owen D. “Dale” Stickles, 84, has lived a life of service.

He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He served in the U.S. Air Force in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

And since his retirement from the armed forces, he has served the community, volunteering at Hospice of South Central Indiana.

Born Feb. 16, 1928, in Bedford, Stickles joined the Navy in March 1946, after the formal surrender of Japan but before the war officially had been declared over. The peace treaty with Japan was signed in 1951.

Stickles served in the Navy as an aircraft electrician for two years, much of the time in Maryland.

He returned to Indiana in 1947 and joined the Air Force Reserve, serving at Atterbury Air Base, which later was renamed Bakalar Air Force Base. At the same time, he worked for General Motors in Bedford, making brakes and transmissions for Buicks and Allison.

In 1951, he began a two-year assignment in the Pacific during the Korean War, spending much of the time on transport missions between Fukuoka, Japan, and Korea. Stickles said he transported anything from supplies to weapons and the bodies of military personnel.

Stickles joined the Air Force full time in 1958, after Atterbury had launched its reserve technician program.

In 1968, Stickles was called to fight in the Vietnam War — on the same day that his son, Owen D. Stickles II, returned from the conflict.

Stickles served as a flight engineer on an AC-119 twin-engine gunship with a six-barrel machine gun. Stickles said his crew of five flew from St. Augustine, Fla., to Nha Trang, Vietnam, in 70 hours and 10 stops. Right after arrival, the crew was flown back to the Philippines for six-day survival training, or “snake school,” as Stickles called it.

In Vietnam, Stickles’ crew mostly slept during the day and flew missions at night, typically one at 6 p.m., another at 9 p.m. and a third at 1:30 a.m.

Night missions were critical, he said, because the Viet Cong typically moved at night to attack U.S. forces and southern villages under cover of darkness. Stickles’ crew usually would be assigned a sector in which to circle until called to attack.

“Lot of waiting,” Stickles recalled. “We burned up a lot of gas.”

But battles could come quickly and provide for frenzied action. After being cleared to engage, the crew could follow the orders from officers on the ground, who would relay information about the enemy’s location.

“So we went and got ‘em,” Stickles said.

The gunship’s weapons could fire 4,000 rounds per minute, he said, making a sound not like a gun but like a sheet of metal being ripped in half.

Stickles said his crew did not have any close calls, though it constantly faced the danger of small-arms fire and surface-to-air missiles. The AC-119 had to fly low, he said. Otherwise the guns would not have been effective.

His crew flew 600 sorties that year and fired about 16 million rounds.

“We never lost ... anybody from my crew,” Stickles said.

Sometimes, as he and his fellow airmen slept, enemy soldiers would launch rockets into the camp, Stickles said.

“They never hit anything that amounted to much,” he said.

After his return from Vietnam, Stickles served at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas, at Royal Air Force Station Woodbridge in England and from 1975 until his retirement in 1983 at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C.

After his wife, Ruth, died after a heart attack in 1992, Stickles moved back to Indiana in 1993, because he still had family here.

A neighbor introduced Stickles to the hospice, and the two began volunteering together, mostly to deliver and pick up wheelchairs and walkers with Stickles’ pickup truck. He mostly has driven GM vehicles, staying true to the company for which he worked in the 1940s and ’50s.

Occasionally he also provided companionship to hospice patients, most of whom are in the final stages of their lives.

“You try to entertain them a little bit, ... try to talk about something they like to talk about,” he said.

He shrugs off his dedication to service and his volunteering at the hospice.

“They needed somebody, and I wasn’t overloaded at the time, so I volunteered,” he said last week, sitting at a table in the hospice building east of Columbus Regional Hospital. He wore his Air Force jacket, which still fit after nearly 30 years. The pants are a different story, he said with a chuckle.

Stickles continues to volunteer, although he is mostly on call these days, in part because he has had some health issues, including a case of the shingles that required hospitalization earlier this year.

Stickles said he has enjoyed his volunteering at the hospice.

“I still think it’s a good program.”

He said he wishes his wife had had access to such a program when she was ill.

Marcia Bundura, manager of volunteer services at the hospice, said she has been impressed by Stickles’ dedication to the agency. During the flood of 2008, he stepped up and delivered supplies, she said. And for many years, he’d stop by every afternoon to ask if he could help.

And whenever she calls him for help, Stickles jumps into action, Bundura said.

“He has been a great support to me,” she said. “He gets along with everyone. He doesn’t know a stranger, which is awesome for us in Hospice.”

Bundura said that, after all his experiences in the war, she has been amazed at how much compassion Stickles carries with him.

“After what he saw, he still came out as a very compassionate man, totally to our blessing,” she said.

These days, Stickles spends a lot of time reading, pretty much anything in large print that he can find at the library. If the cover looks good and he likes the summary on the jacket, he’ll read it, he said.

He also spends a lot of time with friends and typically spends holidays with his sister in Bedford.

Stickles isn’t one to complain, but he laments, though with some humor, that he does not like aging, particularly losing his memory. He said he sometimes tells a story but then forgets the name of a person or place and he won’t remember it until a few hours later.

“Or it might be two days later,” he said with a laugh.

People who talk about the Golden Years, Stickles said, “are as crazy as a bunch of monkeys.”

Despite his war experiences and living through the death of his wife and all three of their sons, Stickles said he feels blessed.

“I’ve never had a broken bone. Never been shot. I’ve been retired since 1983, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.”

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