‘Brothers’ Arrange Final Salute For Utah Veteran Who Lost Battle With COVID-19

Dec 20, 2020, 10:00 PM | Updated: 11:58 pm

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – A Utah military veteran has finished his final battle. He faced an unbeatable foe, in extraordinary circumstances. When he needed them, his legion of brothers had his back.

Legion of Brothers

There’s a brotherhood in the military that’s forged by experience.

“Because of the operations you’ve been on, and the places you’ve been, and the things you’ve seen,” said retired Brig. Gen. Jim Martin, U.S. Army Special Forces

That bond among those who serve makes jumping out of an airplane a little less terrifying.

Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Dick Veenendaal was a jumpmaster in the United States Army Special Forces, commonly known as the “green berets.”

Jim Martin was his commanding officer.

“I served with Dick in Okinawa, Philippines, Korea – mainly in the Far East,” said Martin, who served in the military for 34 years.

Martin started out as a high school dropout and retired in 1989 as a Brigadier General, and Assistant Adjutant General of the Utah Army National Guard.

He said Veenendaal was a natural leader.

“He just came across as fearless, and the younger guys – they gravitated towards him, I believe, because of that,” he said.

Veenendaal took retired Lt. Col. Bruce Sperry, U.S. Army Special Forces, on his first night combat jump.

“I remember seeing him on the ground, and then seeing him standing in front of the door of the aircraft and thinking, ‘I’m gonna be okay,'” said Sperry, who retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2006.

“When you’re a leader among elite soldiers, you must have unquestionable strength and commitment. He absolutely had that,” Sperry said.

An Unbeatable Foe

Even a seasoned soldier at Veenendaal’s age, 86, is little match for COVID-19.

“I think there’s a misconception that warriors are cold, soulless creatures,” said Sperry. “I think it couldn’t be more from the truth.”

Sperry became combat-ready, only this time, he donned his personal protective equipment, or PPE.

“You put on your body armor and you go. You don’t think about it,” he said.

Sperry was about to go in to be with Veenendaal, who was losing his battle with COVID.

The VA Salt Lake City Healthcare System instituted a strict no-visitor policy during the pandemic.

“Sometimes, patients need the presence of a friend in order to let go,” said Sperry.

He works at the VA and got special permission to be with Veenendaal. He said the VA used to have a policy that no veteran dies alone, until the pandemic made visiting too risky.

Sperry had known Veenendaal for 20 years and wanted to be there for him.

A Hot Shave

In that room was a soldier and his sergeant. As he visited with Veenendaal, Sperry gave him a hot shave. Shaving was paramount to leadership in the military, Sperry said.

“An infantry soldier maintains decorum and discipline and shaves a beard even in combat,” he explained. “During his generation, a good, close shave was essential to leadership.”

It was also something that Sperry believed would be familiar and comforting to his friend.

“I put moist towels on his face. The warm moist towel, any man who shaves will know how that feels on your skin. It was a very personal thing for me, and I know it was personal for him, too. It wasn’t just me,” said Sperry. “He has literally touched the lives of thousands of men and women in the military during his career, and they were on my back.”

Then, Sperry prepped Veenendaal for his “final jump.”

“In jump terminology, he was standing in the door,” Sperry said. “The last two commands are, ‘Stand in the door,’ and, ‘Go.'”

Then, it was time.

“(I) basically said, ‘go.’ He did so,” Sperry said. “Until we meet again, at that final soldier sunset. That’s what I told him, and he passed very shortly after that.”

A Last Good-bye

There was one more mission: a final salute.

VA staff wheeled out Dick’s body draped with an American Flag.

Bruce stood at attention and said, “Prepare for honors for (a) fallen veteran.”

Then he saluted and said, “Command Sergeant Major Dick Veenendaal, rest in peace.”

There was silence in the hallway as staff stood at attention and saluted their fallen soldier. It was a powerful moment.

“We won’t see the likes of him again, but we both hope that his legacy and the things that he taught and stood for live on among the young operators in special forces today,” Martin said.

“It’s a sense of loss, but it’s yet a sense of respect for the contributions that that veteran has made to our freedoms and to our country,” Sperry said.

It was a last good-bye to a man who was one-of-a-kind, and a brother-in-arms.

“He was a hell of a good soldier,” Martin said.

Dick Veenendaal’s wife and daughter chose not to be interviewed for this story, but contributed photos and background information.

In a text message, Dick’s daughter, Cindy Veenendaal, said they loved him very much.

“My dad was a great person and father, and it’s hard to go on without him,” Veenendaal said.

Special thanks to Jed’s Barbershop in Sugar House for letting us film a hot shave for this story.

Dick Veenendaal passed away Oct. 19. He achieved the highest enlisted rank in the military, Command Sergeant Major. He was one of seven siblings.

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‘Brothers’ Arrange Final Salute For Utah Veteran Who Lost Battle With COVID-19