Following his high school graduation in 1964, John Overgaag attended Casper College for two years before moving to the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
“I wasn’t a real good student,” Overgaag admitted. “Primarily I was there to be deferred from the draft.”
His poor performance led to the University suggesting he take a leave from school for a semester. So he did, returning to his hometown of Greybull, Wyoming.
Overgaag took a job working for Hawkins and Powers Aviation. Gene Hawkins, one of the owners, had been a military helicopter pilot and gave Overgaag a few helicopter flying lessons. This convinced Overgaag that flying helicopters was what he should be doing. He volunteered for the Army.
At his pre-induction physical, Overgaag qualified for warrant flight officer training and was off to Fort Polk, Louisiana, for his eight-week basic training. Six weeks into the program, he took his pre-flight physical. Overgaag’s commanding officer called him in and told him that he flunked the exam.
They determined that Overgaag had joined the Army under a faulty contract because he was unable to fulfill his training due to being color blind. He was given two offers: he could be discharged from the Army immediately, go home, and probably be drafted back into the Army within a month. Or, he could stay and be given a two year enlistment, rather than a four year. Overgaag opted for the second.
On the morning of his graduation from basic training, Overgaag was on an airplane going to Ft. McPherson, in Atlanta, Georgia. It was there he received “LOJ” – learning on the job – for what would be his Army assignment.
“They called me a Personnel Analysis, I believe,” Overgaag said. The job was essentially bookkeeping for the 3rd Army.
From every Army base in the United States there were teams of soldiers who traveled to the hometowns of fallen soldiers for their funerals. When a soldier or officer was killed, the Army contacted the family asking what they would like the Army to provide at the funeral service. This could include military pallbearers, honor guard, folding of the flag, a bugler to play “Taps” and a 21-gun salute. Every family requested something different.
Overgaag volunteered for funeral duty. “I generally did the flag,” he recalled. “It’s got to be just right. The stars got to be right in the center and taut. I generally folded, another guy (was) at the other end, two guys in the center, holding the flag.
“I recall one time when I acted as an honor guard. (I) stood at parade rest as people walked by.” Most of the families didn’t want the 21-gun salute, Overgaag said.
“Too much gun,” thought Overgaag. When he did have to serve with the gun salute, he remembers it as traumatic. “I had to work hard not to have tears during the whole thing. It was tough.”
Small town heroes
Most of Overgaag’s trips were into Tennessee.
“Some of them were in towns of 3,000 – Pinedale size – and some were in the city. Quite a few were way, way back in the hills. Here (we would) go up dirt roads, back to these tiny little churches.
“Normally we were fairly well received. People would thank us for our service. It wasn’t a very popular war. A lot of those folks saw us in uniform being the bad guys, even though their son had been in uniform, too.
“I remember one particular (funeral). It was a black kid we buried way back in the hills. Our instructions were, as soon as we’re done, get on the bus, and get out of there.”
The family was very angry, Overgaag remembered. “The government, the military, sent their boy over there. (They) probably were second rate citizens of the United States, but he’s good enough to go over there and get killed.”
He recalled another funeral, the memory of which has stayed with him.
“It was in a small town, Pinedale size. It was like the high school star quarterback married the homecoming queen and a month later he was gone to Vietnam. You could just tell by the crowd, the number of people – a huge funeral. Folks were lined up for miles, the procession. That was tough. Just thinking about that boy, 18 years old. A lot of guys when they were drafted and they had a steady girl, they immediately got married. I could see that happening to that kid. ‘Let’s get married,’ got a month together and then he’s gone.”
As best Overgaag could remember, it was almost always closed coffins. “God only knows what was inside. There could have been only one hole, could have been only one hand. Who knows.
“All the time I was doing that, the thought was in the back of my head, two months from now I’m going to be over there.”
Someone could soon be folding the flag and standing honor guard at his funeral.
Overgaag volunteered for the funeral work “just to get out of the office.” He wanted to see some of the country, having never been in the south before. The duty also came with a three-day pass, giving him more of an opportunity to get away from the base.
Going off base, though, wasn’t always comfortable. It was an unpopular war, and there were plenty of protesters.
“Where I found it mostly was in the airlines and arriving in the airports,” Overgaag said. “I had to be in uniform. I always carried a little bag, and the minute I could I went into the bathroom and changed my clothes. I think they could still tell by your haircut you were military. I got out of those clothes as fast as I could. It wasn’t uncommon to have someone spit on you, sneer at you, call you (vulgar names).
“Going back to Greybull, Wyoming, was different. People knew you and there was no abuse there. But going into Washington, D.C., or New York, or Atlanta Airport … again, it wasn’t personal. They were just expressing themselves, their dislike for politics, and you were the first person they could get their hands on.”
After his time at Ft. McPherson, Overgaag was sent to Germany, not Vietnam.
“I was super lucky,” he said.
Then and now
Despite his stroke of good fortune of serving his tour of duty in Europe, it still haunts Overgaag that he didn’t go to Vietnam.
“I think of all the guys who went to Vietnam, and I almost feel guilty. They had to go. Many of them died and never came back, or missing an arm, a leg, or a foot. I always felt guilty that I was so blessed to get to go to Germany. They didn’t.”
After leaving the Army, Overgaag returned to Wyoming and finished his degree at the University of Wyoming. This time he was a serious student. From Laramie he went to Billings, Montana, and earned a master’s degree in education administration.
While there, he learned of a job in Pinedale, Wyoming, for a special education director. He applied, got the job and moved to Pinedale with his wife, Michelle. There they have made their home ever since.
“I’m so thankful that America today loves their returning vets and takes care of them, and they come back honored,” said Overgaag.
When pressed about feeling resentment for his poor treatment when in the military, he said, “I let it go. I understand why the people were doing it. Had I not been in the military, I might have been down there with them. I don’t know.”