by Mitchell Kirk Pharos-Tribune
---- — It was a night of saluting veterans with an emphasis on women of the military at the annual Cass County Roosters Salute to the Armed Forces Gala Saturday night.
According to the latest data available from the U.S. Department of Veterans affairs, there were 275 women veterans living in Cass County in September. The gala Saturday recognized the six who were in attendance.
Mary Renkenberger, 93, was one of these women. After finishing high school in Kewanna, she joined the U.S. Navy in 1943 during World War II after graduating from nurses’ training in South Bend and noticing many of her classmates entering the service.
“I saw everyone else going, so I went with them,” she said.
Mary Margaret Mee, who was also a Navy nurse during World War II, recalled a similar motivation.
“The war was on and it was time to do something,” she said.
Lori Gano joined the army in 1979 after being inspired by her father, an Army veteran himself, to do so. Starting out as a communications specialist and then becoming a cook, she served in Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga. and in Berlin, Germany.
“As an 18-year-old kid who thinks they know everything, it helps you grow up,” she said.
Gano recalled the equal playing field during basic training as well.
“I had to withstand everything the guys went through,” she said. “They didn’t treat us any different.”
Gano’s father, a former Army major, was in attendance as well. He arrived fittingly in his Vietnam era 1977 M151A2 Military Utility Tactical Truck, or MUTT, that he has been restoring for about the last seven years.
Starting in the Army in 1970 during the Vietnam War after being in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in college, he said he was thankful for events like Saturday’s gala because military appreciation wasn’t always easy to find during the widely contested Vietnam War.
“In my generation — the Vietnam generation — we were spit on and called baby killers,” he said.
Thelma Conrad, executive director of the Cass County Historical Society, was the event’s keynote speaker. Her address told a chronological story of women in the military, from women involved in armed conflict during the country’s pioneer days to the U.S. Defense Department’s rescinding of the combat exclusion rule in January.
Conrad spoke of the military room at the historical society’s museum and how excited kids get when the room’s contents inspire them to talk about their relatives’ military service.
“It’s fun to see how excited they get,” she said, adding she feels their emotions help uphold the preservation of military appreciation.
All of the funds raised at the gala will go toward the exploration of a veterans park in Cass County.
Bob Vernon, a Cass County Rooster member, said he’s noticed turnouts decrease in recent years and encourages anyone with suggestions on how to bring out more people.
Mitchell Kirk is a staff reporter at the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at 574-732-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him: @PharosMAK