November 2010

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Wis. Retiree Hailed for Service to Military Veterans

Veterans returning to the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin from Iraq and Afghanistan, like their fellow soldiers everywhere, often need a welcoming hand and heart—someone to listen, advise or help them in other ways to move on with their lives away from the horror of war.

Warren Wilber Sr., a retired journeyman inside wireman member of Green Bay Local 158, has walked in their boots. A Marine, he fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War and was severely wounded by a mortar round while assisting in medical evacuation operations after his unit was ambushed by the Viet Cong in 1967.

Awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award in June by the Wisconsin Board of Veterans Affairs for selfless support of returning service members, Wilber, who was born in Keshena on the 235,000-acre reservation in northeast Wisconsin, sees differences between the situation facing Vietnam vets and those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"They have it even worse than we did," he says. Most Vietnam vets served one tour of duty, but those returning from the current wars often complete two or three or more tours, says Wilber, who has battled post traumatic stress disorder and still feels pain that started after the mortar attack. He was paralyzed for three weeks from the trauma of the blast.

"Honestly, I don't know what I would have done without Warren's help," says Kelly Chevalier, who was discharged from the Army in 2006 after three years, including a tour of duty in Iraq. Wilber helped her register for Veterans Administration benefits and has become a friend, taking motorcycle rides with Chevalier and her boyfriend.

"When I came back from Vietnam, I had to find my way through a maze, too," says Wilber, who was accepted into Local 158's apprenticeship program after applying for VA Rehabilitation Training. "I absolutely made a good career choice. The IBEW did real good by my five children."

"The union and my employers hung with me and cut me a lot of slack," says Wilber, who was in and out of the hospital during his apprenticeship and now participates in traditional healing ceremonies for veterans as a member of the Native American Red Feather Warrior Society, a nationwide group of combat veterans with two or more purple hearts.

Wilber's efforts assisting returning war veterans through a still-complicated batch of benefits and agencies are widely recognized. He gets calls from social services departments and individuals with names of veterans in need of help. And he has used his familiarity with the system to help form an ad hoc committee to streamline services to veterans on the Menominee Reservation, which were once handled by seven different organizations.

Cynthia Williams had scant knowledge of Wilber's military history before his award, but is pleased that he is recognized as a "truly great American hero." A Local 158 journeyman inside wireman, Williams worked with Wilber for more than two years at a Proctor and Gamble Paper Co. plant in Green Bay.

"I knew Warren was in great pain at times, especially when the weather was changing," says Williams. "He would say to me, ‘Bad weather's coming, kid.'" When the pain would come, she said, he never complained. But she noticed that he walked a "little straighter and his fists would ball up a bit."

Williams, who has heard others say that Wilber was the best journeyman they had ever worked with, notes that he had a way of teaching lessons in the trade and in life the "coyote way." Wilber figured, says Williams, that "what you learn sticks with you better when you are allowed to find your own way."

Finding one's own way works sometimes, but when it comes to the aftermath of war, it can be impossible, says Wilber.

"War is hell and people need to understand post-traumatic stress disorder," he says. For example, after they have faced potential roadside bombs for months at a time, returning veterans sometimes have trouble even driving down a main highway at home.

From his own experience, he knows that the psychological pain won't go away, but "you learn how to deal with it," and, hopefully, get some distance.

A lifetime member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled American Veterans, Wilber has led the Menominee Nation VFW. He is a 25-year member of the Veterans of the Menominee Nation, which he has served as commander and vice commander.

Further demonstrating his commitment to his community, Wilber has served on the Menominee School District Board for 10 years and on the Title IV Committee which oversees bilingual learning within the district. He is a member and current chair of the Menominee Nation Culture Commission, a group that works with school districts and communities to preserve and perpetuate the Menominee language and culture.

"I feel lucky to have had Warren as my journeyman when I was an apprentice and honored to have known him as a person," says Williams. "There wasn't a Veterans Day that went by that I didn't thank him for the great service he did for our country."

Green Bay Local 158 member Warren Wilber Sr., center, receives lifetime achievement award from Wisconsin Board of Veterans Affairs. To Wilber's left is Madison Local 159 President Dave Boetcher, Veterans Affairs board member.