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Veterans Day

Honoring all who served

St. Joseph vet reunites with Medal of Honor hero

Memories of Robert Emmett O’Malley take a few forms for Don Crigger. A kinship can be defined by encounters.

First came that time at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Yokosuka, Japan. It was 1965. Crigger arrived in the ward and found his fellow Marine in a nearby bed, multiple surgeries undergone, part of a lung lost, tubes running everywhere.

The memory pains the St. Joseph veteran.

But he laughs recounting a subsequent meeting. The next year, Crigger and some fellow Marines had rented a cabin at Surf City, North Carolina, not far from Camp Lejeune. A knock on the door came about 9 p.m. He took a moment to recognize O’Malley with shoulder-length locks, the war hero who left the Marines with a vow to never again cut his hair or shave.

“In the moonlight shining through that door, it looked like Jesus Christ,” Crigger recalled.

A colonel from the Pentagon had been calling him, O’Malley said that night. That same colonel would coax him into grooming and some dress blues. The Marine’s family would like that when, in December 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented him with the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor.

Crigger shared this pride, then and last month. After decades apart, he traveled to Texas to spend time with O’Malley, a personal inspiration, an exemplar of service to America and an all-around good guy.

“Fifty-three years is a long time. And you think about him all the time,” Crigger said. “Something will trigger (the memory), something on TV, or they’ll show the president of the United States putting another Medal of Honor on somebody else at a whole different time, 53 years later.

The veteran added, “It means the same thing.”

An enduring bond

Semper fidelis. To understand this enduring bond, it helps to know the motto of the Marine Corps: “Always faithful.”

It surprised Crigger not at all that his first telephone conversation with O’Malley after all that time lasted two-and-a-half hours. What did they talk about? “Old times,” Crigger said.

They had gotten to know one another by spending more than three months together in that military hospital. They reconnected over coffee at a PX at Camp Lejeune. Life pushed them in different directions later, but their shared experiences would allow for no erosion of military kin.

O’Malley’s Medal of Honor citation deserves a reading, Crigger said. It does.

The son of Irish immigrants who settled in Queens, New York, O’Malley had three other brothers who served in the Marines.

He went to Vietnam in the spring of 1965, a corporal and a squad leader in Company I, the 3rd Division of the 3rd Marines. That August, the military commenced Operation Starlight, now recognized as the first major American victory over Vietnamese Communist forces.

Near the coastal hamlet of An Cu’ong, O’Malley’s unit came under intense small-arms fire from an entrenched position. The citation says that O’Malley raced across a rice paddy and jumped into the trench, attacking the enemy with his rifle and grenades. He then led his squad to help another Marine unit under heavy fire.

After assisting in the evacuation of wounded comrades, O’Malley rallied remaining members of his squad and returned to the place of heaviest fighting. Though wounded three times, he refused evacuation and continued to provide covering fire while until all other injured Marines loaded into helicopters.

“In a place of great danger, he ignored danger. Wounded, he refused to consider his own safety. At the risk of his own life, he shielded other men’s lives,” Johnson said during the Medal of Honor ceremony on Dec. 6, 1966, in Austin, Texas.

“Every time that I have awarded the Medal of Honor, I wonder what it is that makes men of this quality.”

O’Malley would be the first Marine in the Vietnam War to win the Medal of Honor. His parents, John and Catherine O’Malley, looked on. The first plane ride of their lives had been aboard Air Force One.

‘Emotional moment’

As happens with many old friends these days, Facebook played a role in the reunion of Crigger and O’Malley. The St. Joseph man saw a post about Marine heroism in Vietnam.

“I’m about halfway through this, and I think, this sounds familiar,” the veteran said.

He replied to the post, and one of O’Malley’s relatives replied to that. Phone numbers got exchanged. That led to the long phone conversation, during which O’Malley invited Crigger to Goldthwaite, Texas, about 90 miles west of Waco.

There in the town of about 1,900 residents, the Mills County Historical Museum has an exhibit dedicated to O’Malley. His wife Barbara, an artist and long-time Goldthwaite resident, did a 45-foot mural on an outside wall of the museum.

“He’s just a celebrity that nobody bothers,” Crigger said of O’Malley.

At lunch, the two men reminisced and, as they prepared to leave, O’Malley drew from his pocket something Crigger was slow to recognize. It was a limited-run coin minted for Medal of Honor winners.

“He said, ‘I want you to have this.’ It was a very, very emotional moment. There aren’t many of those around,” Crigger said.

As Veterans Day 2019 arrives, the nation has 71 living Medal of Honor recipients, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Crigger said it was an honor to reconnect with the one he met more than a half-century ago.

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Deepening river proposed to alleviate future flooding

The Missouri River will likely remain in flood stage through Thanksgiving and perhaps into December, according to the region’s hydrologist.

“It doesn’t look like they are going to reduce the releases at Gavin’s Point Dam until Dec. 1,” said Scott Watson, a National Weather Service hydrologist. “It may not come down (below flood stage) until December sometime.”

Having stayed above flood stage since early March, Watson said he hasn’t seen the Missouri River remain flooded for this amount of time.

“I’ve been here since 2006, and 2011 was a pretty long flood season,” he said. “But I think the river was down below flood stage earlier in the fall than it is this year.”

The river remains in a holding pattern, fluctuating by only inches but remaining steadily near 18 feet, just one foot over the 17-foot flood stage.

Amid the flooding, local leaders continue to scramble to try to find ways to alleviate future flooding concerns.

On a recent visit to St. Joseph, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt suggested deepening the river’s channel could allow for the excess of water to flow without the excess of flooding concerns.

“We’re actively pursuing a better way to use the river and re-prioritize flood control and navigation,” he said.

“Not only does a 10-foot channel or a 15-foot channel move more water than a 9-foot channel or 7-foot channel, but it also moves the water more quickly, which means you don’t have as much buildup in the bottom of the river and you can have a navigational channel that works more effectively because it’s working to clean itself out,” Blunt said. “But the river needs to carry more water in the river bed then it does now.”

Blunt also pointed to the potential economic opportunities to move things on a more navigable Missouri River.

“If you’re more efficient in getting it there, one, you’re more competitive and two, you have more profit potential,” he said. “Both of those things work together nicely together in a world where world food demand is going to double between now and 2050.

“We’re incredibly well located to take advantage of that opportunity, but we have to use our location and use the river in ways to work together in an effective, competitive way,” Blunt said.

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Report finds low-level contaminants in water supplies

A new report from a nonprofit, nonpartisan group finds most of the region’s public drinking water systems comply with government standards — with two exceptions.

The Washington D.C.-based Environmental Working Group recently released its research on tap water quality for systems across the nation, including Missouri. The EWG found no water quality violations in its review of systems that serve Buchanan and Andrew counties, stating that all utilities in both counties complied with health-based drinking water standards from April 2016 to March 2019.

Yet the study did show that systems serving the cities of Coffey in Daviess County and Spickard in Grundy County had significant violations from 2012 to 2017, the last period for which such data is available, and temporarily had been out of government compliance.

Two water systems in Andrew County responded to questions from News-Press NOW concerning their mentions in the report. Andrew County Public Water Supply District 1, based in Savannah and serving more than 5,500 people, distributes its water to customers based on a longtime relationship it has had with Missouri American Water, said Randy Holt, the district’s chief water operator and manager.

“It’s all public notice,” Holt said of mandated annual compliance reports the district must submit to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources detailing its water quality.

Holt said the area’s public water supply districts essentially began in the 1960s as a means of serving farmers and those in rural areas with no access to potable water.

The city of Savannah’s water supply also is included in the group’s report. City Administrator Bruce Lundy pored over the data and discovered that the contaminants detected in the water systems all have something in common.

“Everybody’s results are the same,” Lundy said. “Every one of the chemicals is a byproduct of the chlorination process.”

Like all Northwest Missouri communities, Savannah is required to regularly test its water.

“Last week, we had a very thorough DNR inspection,” he said. “Passed with flying colors.”

Savannah’s $10 million water plant has been online for about a decade, with enough built-in capacity to serve other communities. For now, Lundy said only Fillmore receives water from Savannah.

The ability to contract with other cities would help the plant reach its full potential.

“That would be great,” said Lundy.

Lisa Adams, water quality and environmental compliance supervisor for Missouri American in St. Joseph, said the utility has delivered safe drinking water to its customers — compliant with all federal and state regulations — for the past year.

Adams added that all disinfectant byproducts used by Missouri American in its processes are under reduced monitoring set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“There are many unforeseen and unpredictable factors that may introduce contaminants into our source water,” she added. “Source Water Assessments have been assembled by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to evaluate the susceptibility of contamination to our drinking water sources.”

The EWG report showed that the Coffey water supply had 16 total contaminants for 2012 to 2017, with six exceeding the group’s guidelines. The data also showed Spickard had 13 contaminants, also with six exceeding the guidelines. The group’s report identified the contaminants, such as chloroform and nitrate, as all having potential carcinogenic effects.

The report said both communities’ water systems had amassed 36 violation reports for its own ratings, based in part on such items as penalties assessed and violations of environmental regulations. The points are based on specific problems at a utility, with weight given to violations of drinking water standards and length of time out of compliance with government standards. Several communities in Missouri attained more than 100 violation points.

The EWG criticized the federal government for not establishing new water standards in 20 years, with some regulations more than 40 years old.

“Legal does not necessarily equal safe,” the organization said. “Getting a passing grade from the federal government does not mean the water meets the latest health guidelines.”

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Impacting education
How will new facilities affect academics?

New schools could have a major impact on academics, but does that come at the cost of students becoming just another face in the crowd?

Five different concepts for area high schools have been examined by focus groups as well as community members over the course of the last few months, and St. Joseph School District Superintendent Dr. Doug Van Zyl and School Board President Seth Wright agree that with declining demographics over the next few years, having three high schools may not be the best answer.

“And so while the facilities get the bulk of the focus right now, and I understand why, because they are important ... at the end of the day, this is about making us better academically,” Wright said.

In fact, the community has shown support for a few concepts, including the building of two high schools to replace Central, Benton and Lafayette.

But how will these new models impact education, and should more students be placed in one or two schools as opposed to three, what happens to academics? Moreover, the community has expressed concern over some students just becoming another face in the crowd.

“Research will tell you that it’s based on the quality of teacher that you have,” Van Zyl said. “You could have a classroom of 40 students and a high-quality teacher in there, and those 40 students feel like they’re getting individual instruction. If you have a less-gifted teacher, it feels less educational for the student and there (may be) less interaction with them. We’ve taken a look at what we need to do. The challenge for us is there’s just not a lot of research out there in regard to a community that has some of the demographics that we have in relation to what’s going to be best.”

With a focus on staff, what would happen to the administration and teachers of these schools, and how would such a decision affect them? Van Zyl says that even once the board makes the decision of what to do toward the end of this year — and should the community agree to vote for it — it still will take at least two years before things begin to change.

“So we’ll be working with our staff, we’ll be working with our administrative team to be able to take a look at, ‘OK, exactly what do we need programmatically to meet the needs of our students, and how does our current staff line up with that?’” Van Zyl said.

“But in reality, if you go from three schools to two or one, you don’t need three head coaches and you don’t need three choir directors. But that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be utilized in some other way based on their certification and what the programming is in our schools,” he said. “So we would utilize those folks to meet those programming needs but also give them enough time that if, for some reason, they didn’t think that was a place that they wanted to be, they may have another opportunity to look someplace else.”

Larger schools also don’t necessarily equate to larger classroom sizes. In fact, a decrease in the number of students per class based on the facility would be the goal, he added.

Bringing facilities into the 21st century could have a great impact on education. Many buildings in the district are more than 100 years old, and a walkthrough of several has shown them to below passable, according to architecture company DLR’s rating scale. Lafayette and Benton’s field houses as well as Carden Park and Oak Grove are the only schools to hold a good rating.

Currently having programs spread across three schools, the district may benefit from a two- or one-school model in this regard. New programs also could be added more effectively, Van Zyl said.

“Is this community ready for this discussion?” Wright said. “As we came out of the PACT plan in 2012, the community wasn’t ready to have a discussion whether they wanted to change the high school model. From what I hear so far, the community is ready for the discussion. Does that mean they’re ready for the change?”