Cheney Free Press -

By Lee Hughes
Staff Reporter 

A Medical Lake warrior's curious path to peace

 

April 11, 2019

Dave Seagrave

In this undated photo, Dave Seagrave, far right, stands with unidentified crew members next to a B-52 in which he served as bombardier. Seagrave's participation in the carpet bombing of targets during the Vietnam War left scars that remain today.

Life has a serendipitous way of coming full circle, and shaping our world view along the way.

"Now I'm a musician," said long-time Medical Lake resident and former City Councilman Dave Seagrave, in a voice reminiscent of the late actor Jimmy Stewart. "How many people get to do what they wanted to do in high school?"

Now 80, Seagrave has traveled a long, often dark road from his days as a high school trumpet and tuba player. During his life he's served in a spectrum of careers, from warrior, to pacifist school teacher, community member, and finally back to his original passion: music.

Despite his service within the community, Seagrave doubts many know his backstory. Probably because it's something he shares with few people. It's certainly not something he wears on his sleeve.

"A majority of people in Medical Lake don't know I was in the service," he said.

Death from above

Like many people in the area, Seagrave is a retired Air Force officer who served in a number of roles during his service between 1959 and 1979.

Of those, the one that left lasting scars was as a B-52 navigator and bombardier during the Vietnam War.

Originally designed as a strategic Cold War bomber, the massive eight engine planes were later modified for more conventional carpet bombing of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese in places in Southeast Asia like North Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh trail in South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

In flights of three, a single B-52 would drop it's load of 500-pound bombs that devastated an area 1,000 feet wide and 3,000 feet long, according to Seagrave. The other two bombers would do the same about 500 feet right and left of the first bomber's initial pass.

"That's a bomb every 30 feet. I just can't imagine anything surviving that. Well, they didn't," Seagrave said, adding that, "at 35,000 feet it's rather impersonal."

But the reconnaissance reports detailing the carnage they left behind made it personal. Despite their lofty distance above it all, the death and destruction Seagrave and his fellow airmen meted out from air bases in Guam, Okinawa and Thailand took a heavy toll on their souls.

Military Cadet

Seagrave attended the University of Rhode Island after graduating high school in 1957, but not to study music, his first love, but engineering. Quickly dissatisfied, a fraternity buddy suggested they enter an aviation cadet program together.

Seagrave was accepted, and was inducted into a flight navigation program at Lackland Air Force Base. After being commissioned in November 1960, he was sent to bomber navigation school where he trained on B-52s, even as rumors of war in Vietnam began to emerge.

Along the way Seagrave was wed to Mary, his best friend's sister whom he'd known since he was 13 years old, in 1963.

More training followed at various bases across the U.S. By 1967 he'd progressed to the role of bombardier.

His first combat duty station was Anderson Air Force Base, Guam, from which major U.S. B-52 bombing missions were launched over Vietnam. Other U.S. and overseas duty stations followed as the war dragged on.

Once, during the height of the Vietnam War and the related domestic unrest, Seagrave found himself stuck at the airport in Chicago overnight while traveling in uniform.

It's nearly cliché now, but reality doesn't change for those who experienced it. Outside, a group of protesters "actually spit on me," Seagrave recalled, and called him a baby-killer. He retreated back into the airport.

There, a member of a group of Hare Krishnas, a modernized Hindu sect common in public places at that time, approached and thanked Seagrave for his service. In what was surely a striking contrast, the military man in uniform spent the night visiting with the group in their flowing robes.

This was not uncommon for him, he said. He and fellow pilots often preferred hanging out with local indigenous people when overseas. It was what he called a "coping mechanism."

"It was purely trying to get away from what we were doing," he said of the many bombing missions they flew.

Education

Seagrave served in a number of combat flight-crew and staff positions during his 20-year career. In 1973, the Air Force decided he should attend college, and he went "bootstrap," a program giving select Air Force personnel up to two years to obtain a college degree.

He studied political science at Gonzaga's Fort Write College of the Holy Names. His instructors? Two nuns. His education involved what he termed a "very proactive learning environment."

"Most of my college was one-on-one," Seagrave said, in a sort of Socratic method where the nuns who would offer opposing positions in support of each side of a social or political issue.

"Now you've heard my side of the issue," one nun would say. "Now go talk to my roommate."

They were polar opposites, Seagrave recalled.

"One was a dove and one was a hawk," he said.

Seagrave was awarded a degree in political science with a minor in science in June 1976. He returned to Fairchild to serve as an intelligence officer.

Meanwhile, that same year Gonzaga launched a part-time masters program on the base. Seagrave enrolled, and in 1978 he earned a masters degree in human resources management.

A year later, Major Seagrave retired.

Retirement

His departure from the military was an abrupt fork in the road of Seagrave's life that harbored unresolved issues. So when he left the Air Force he never looked back.

"I'm getting out of here," he recalled of his retirement, quipping, "I got promoted to mister."

One of the first things he did was remove his collection of "brag wall" military photos from his hallway. All of them. He essentially buried his military career.

It was another coping mechanism.

"I just completely moved on to a new place in my life," he said, not wanting to dwell on what he termed "bad memories."

He became a self-described loner.

"I guess that's how I dealt with the downside of Vietnam," Seagrave said.

Teaching

Perhaps it was the influence of the nuns at the College of the Holy Names, but of the many paths a retired military officer can take, Seagrave chose teaching. After earning a teaching certificate from Eastern Washington University in 1980, he began working as a substitute teacher in the Spokane region.

In 1984, he landed a job at the Hutterite communal colony near Reardan. His title: Headmaster - of the colony's one-room schoolhouse.

His position there is memorialized in an iconic photo by the late photojournalist Kit King that hangs on Seagrave's wall. The image captures a bucolic scene: Seagrave sits at his desk surrounded by several attentive Hutterite children who hover around him looking down. In the foreground sits a girl on the desktop, one leg dangling casually over the desks edge, her white bonnet glowing in the light as she listens while Seagrave expounds on a subject.

The photo hangs on Seagrave's small home office wall.

"They are very educated people for never being out of the eighth grade," Seagrave said, adding, "it's not the number of years in school, but what you do with it."

In 2005, Seagrave again retired, leaving behind the greater Hutterite community that called him bruder Dave - brother Dave.

Vietnam Memorial Wall

The specter of Vietnam remained with brother Dave, however. During a visit to Washington D.C., Mary asked Seagrave if he wanted to visit the new Vietnam Memorial. He declined, saying he wasn't ready. He finally made the pilgrimage in 2007.

"It was depressing, but very humbling and inspiring," he said of the memorial.

A scale replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall, called The Traveling Wall, will arrive in Medical Lake on June 12.

Not so thankless service

While most of those Seagrave served with are now gone, the work of B-52 air strikes didn't go entirely thankless.

Seagrave flew sorties over Khe San, Vietnam during the siege of 1968, carpet bombing the area around the besieged Marine Corps outpost in support of ground troops there, denuding the surrounding jungle to reduce enemy cover and concealment.

Seagrave found himself chatting with the owner of a local auto shop after he first moved to Medical Lake, and they determined they were fellow Vietnam vets. The mechanic, a Marine who had served at Khe San, had an interesting reaction when Seagrave said he was a former B-52 bombardier.

"He picked me up off the floor and he hugged me," Seagrave recalled. "And he said, 'thank you.'"

Peace through service

Seagrave has done much with his post-military life. In addition to serving on the Medical Lake City Council, he's served with nearly every fraternal service organization Medical Lake has to offer, as well as volunteering for a variety of charity groups.

"I guess I was trying to be a better person by becoming truly part of the community," he said.

Lee Hughes

Dave Seagrave at his home in Medical Lake. The 80-year-old musician and former B-52 bombardier spent many years after retirement from the Air Force overcoming his experiences during the Vietnam War through community service.

Today, Seagrave is back to his first love: music. Despite hearing loss from his time flying, and a slight shake in his right arm from a neck injury, Seagrave happily plays on the Lilac City Community Band, and will join the group during the opening ceremony of The Traveling Wall when it arrives in Medical Lake.

When asked what words of wisdom someone who has traveled the extremes of war and peace might pass on to people, Seagrave offered this: "We have to learn to accept the past and hopefully learn something from it," he said. "And maybe better learn to get along with people within the world."

Take time to be a parent and to be with your family, a perspective he said he carries forward from his time in the Hutterite Bruderhof community that he called "one big family."

"Today is the first day of our life. I can't do anything about yesterday, but I can do something about today," Seagrave said, then chuckled. "I might not be here tomorrow."

Lee Hughes can be reached at lee@cheneyfreepress.com.

 

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