Marine went from one hot spot to another
CHAMPAIGN — Iowa native Scott Koeneman went to sea and saw a lot of the world, particularly those places where an American could get shot at.
The Marine corporal was in Lebanon in 1983, just before a terrorist bombing that killed 241 U.S. service personnel at a Marine barracks.
He served just south of the demilitarized zone in the Korean Peninsula; in the Philippines, not far from communist insurgents; and in Somalia, when warlords were cutting up the country.
"The same places that were hot spots then are hot spots now," he says.
Now at the University of Illinois Library, Koeneman, 53, says he was not a great high school student, "no particular direction," and not ready for college when he enlisted at 17 — he had to have his parents sign the forms.
He says his father helped motivate him.
"He told me I wouldn't make it," Koeneman says.
After boot camp in San Diego in 1981, he trained as a radio operator.
"I'd wanted to be an infantryman. I ended up being an infantryman, only with more equipment to carry," he jokes.
But he says it was important in his development that he was "buying in" for something.
"You have to make a decision at some point that you want to be part of something bigger than yourself," he explains.
His first deployment took his unit to Okinawa, Japan; Thailand; on liberty in Hong Kong; and in the soup in South Korea.
All that travel changed him, he says: "I learned that different does not equal wrong."
In his second deployment, he and his friends thought they were getting a sweet deal out of Hawaii, an air wing instead of a ground section.
"Air wing has it easy — you're not humping in the jungle," Koeneman says.
But he ended up with a tough assignment after all, in an amphibious brigade.
He served as a forward air controller, guiding fire by planes or choppers from the ground — sometimes pretty close to the line of fire.
This was before there was GPS. Koeneman used coordinates, not computers.
In this deployment, he was sent to northern Lebanon.
It had been one of the most beautiful spots on the Mediterranean.
In one direction, he had a beautiful view of the sea; when he turned around, there was rubble everywhere.
The duty was dangerous. Helicopters brought in bombs, 3,000 pounds per pallet, to retrofit to ancient British attack aircraft then in use by Lebanese forces.
The planes used a costal highway for a landing strip and Koeneman's team was based on an old tennis court, in view of Druse fighters in the mountains who had rocket-propelled grenades.
A Lebanese man brought the Marines coffee in an elaborate service and thanked them for being there.
In all the uproar, "this guy was still trying to have good manners," Koeneman says.
That coffee set was destroyed when a rocket-propelled grenade blew up not far from the group.
Koeneman served four years, and might have stayed in.
He had a letter from Ronald Reagan giving him a presidential appointment to Annapolis, the prestigious naval academy, but failed the physical just because he had bad color vision.
After leaving the Marines, Koeneman bummed around Hawaii and southern California, then enrolled at Drake University, where he met his future wife Nancy. They have a son, Quinn.
The Marine called his four years "the best and worst experiences of my life."
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.