For the Fenner family of Council Bluffs â husband, Robert; wife, Elaine; and son, Matthew â serving their country in the military has been a family tradition.
Had it not been for a training mishap, daughter Amy Skolaut would have been a part of that tradition, too.
A native of Lincoln, Nebraska, Robert graduated from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln with a degree in education but found he didnât care for his chosen career field.
Unable to pass the Air Force physical, he joined the Army in 1965 and was sent to Fort Gordon, Georgia, for basic training. With the war in Vietnam escalating, he went on to advance infantry training before being transferred to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Robert said his OCS class started with 391 members, only 91 of whom graduated. He said the percentage of those who graduated from OCS increased substantially as the war in Vietnam escalated and more officers were needed there.
Commissioned as a second lieutenant at the completion of OCS, Robert was assigned to a unit training scout dogs at Fort Benning.
âThe hardest part of the training we offered at Fort Benning was teaching handlers how to âreadâ their dog,â Robert said, âhow to determine what the dog was trying to tell you.â
He was then sent to Vietnam where, promoted to first lieutenant, he served as the commander of a scout dog unit. The soldiers and dogs assigned to the unit served as âpointâ for other units heading into combat.
âOne of the biggest problems in Vietnam was convincing the units that the dogs were helpful â would alert them to potential danger such as trip wires and ambushes,â he said.
Robert said the Viet Cong understood the value of the dogs, and offered a bounty for those who killed one of the scout dogs or its handler.
He said that when he was out in the field in Vietnam, he would sleep with his head on his dog.
âIf the dog started stirring around, you knew something was happening and it was time to get into your foxhole,â Robert said. âThe dogs do take care of you.â
After serving 11 months and 27 days in Vietnam, Robert was reassigned to Fort Carson, Colorado, where he served as an operations officer.
He points proudly to the fact that he lost only three dogs and one handler during his deployment in Vietnam, further underscoring the value of the dogs in combat situations.
Discharged from active duty in 1968, Robert spent two years in the Army Reserve where he rose to the rank of captain.
While serving at Fort Carson, he had met the woman he would eventually marry.
A native of Lancaster, New York, Fennerâs wife, Elaine, earned her nursing degree at Niagara University in Niagara Falls, New York. While a student, she was enrolled in the ROTC program and was commissioned as a second lieutenant when she graduated.
Entering active duty in 1967, she was initially assigned to Fort Carson as a nurse. She was then reassigned to a 1,000 bed hospital in Tokyo, Japan, where severely wounded soldiers from Vietnam were treated before being sent back to the United States.
During her time in Japan, the Japanese were demonstrating against the U.S. presence in their country. They would build a fire around the hospital monthly as a form of protest.
They would also shut down the electrical power to the hospital, so suctioning patients was done manually using the power of a bicycle pump with the effort illuminated by flashlights.
Elaine said the job was physically and emotionally draining because many of the wounded had severe injuries such as arms and legs blown off.
Discharged in 1969, Robert and Elaine Fenner moved to Council Bluffs where Elaine taught at the Jennie Edmundson nursing school for seven years. She then did occupational nursing for Jennie for 23 years before retiring in 2006.
Robert initially worked as a claims adjuster for an insurance company before taking a job at Werner Trucking. The couple owned and operated a pasta shop before opening their catering business.
The Fennerâs son, Matthew, opted for a different service branch, enlisting in the Navy right after he graduated from high school.
âI wanted to see the world,â he said. âI spent a lot of time during school reading about these places, and I wanted to see them.â
As a Navy seaman from 1988 to 1992 assigned to the USS Concord, his ship supplied those serving in Desert Storm and Desert Shield and provided the young seaman with the opportunity to visit France, Spain, Italy, The Vatican, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Greece, Cuba, Tunisia, Capri, Israel and Sicily.
âI saw things, experienced cultures, that I never would have seen had I gone to college right out of high school,â he said. âIf youâre not sure where youâre going, you get four years to sort things out.â
He took college classes while he was in the Navy before completing his degree in museum studies at Bonaventure University in New York. Now disabled, Fenner returned to Council Bluffs and worked for a time as a librarian at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Matt Fenner said his sister, Amy, had also planned to enlist in the Army after graduating from Bucknell University where she, like her mother, was enrolled in the ROTC program. She injured her arm and shoulder during a training accident and was unable to be commissioned.
A second son, Jon, is a ranger at Botna Bend County Park.