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Local Vietnam veterans on board honor flight

When Jerry Mundil heard Bill Williams speak at the Colfax County Senior Center he felt compelled to help raise money for Monday’s honor flight to Washington, D.C., for Nebraska Vietnam War veterans.

The trip organized by Williams and his wife Evonne through Patriotic Productions took 650 veterans to the nation's capital to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and other monuments.

“There aren’t many people in this world doing much for Vietnam veterans,” Mundil said.

Mundil, his wife Rose and brother Richard, who lives in Howells, organized a steak fry in Howells and hamburger feed in Schuyler to raise money for the flights. Between the events, they contributed around $25,000.

“It makes me feel good that people helped me put this on," Mundil said. "One person can’t do it all themselves."

Mundil also volunteered to serve during the Vietnam War. From 1970-74, he was a section leader on the flight deck of the USS Constellation.

Mundil and fellow Schuyler Vietnam veterans Norbert Drueppel, Donald Eckstein and John Russ were on board Monday's flights to D.C.

Drueppel was excited to go on the trip.

“Looking forward to it,” he said. “With 650 of my closest friends.”

Drueppel graduated from Lindsay Holy Family and decided to enlist in the Army along with a group of friends.

“At that time you considered it inevitable that you were going to Vietnam,” he said. “So some of us had a ‘let’s do it and get it done’ way of thinking about it.”

He served as an Army specialist in the central highlands region and said his time in the service had a positive impact on his life.

“At that time, being a rural kid from Nebraska, you didn’t have a handle on how things were in the world,” he said. “I think you appreciate every day after going through that and making it out alive. Every day is a bonus after that.”

Drueppel and his wife still go on vacations with some of his friends from the war. They visited Vietnam a few years ago when a cruise they were on stopped there for a few days.

Vietnam is a young country, so not many people living there today remember the war, but one of Drueppel’s tour guides did.

“Her No. 1 comment was how tough it was that during the day we controlled the village, and at night we left so the Viet Cong were in charge,” he said. “I thought that was a very interesting perspective.”

He’d also visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial before Monday's trip, once with another group of veterans. He found a list of all the men in his company who were killed before this week's trip.

“Some I knew, some I didn’t,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll have enough time to pay my respects.”

Eckstein also looked forward to seeing the wall, especially the name of a friend he served with who was killed in the field.

“Kind of hard to think about the day that he died,” Eckstein said.

Eckstein served as an Army specialist and aide to a commanding officer in the northern mountain area. He has a very straightforward take on his service.

“To me, it was a job to do,” he said. “We went over there to do a job. That’s about it.”

On a few occasions he went out with Special Forces to do community service in the villages, mainly infrastructure projects such as building drinking water systems.

Russ is a newcomer to Schuyler. He and his wife, who was born and raised here, moved to town in 2009. Before that, they lived in California where Russ was the chief of medical administration services at a Veterans Affairs hospital.

“I was there to serve the veterans,” he said.

Russ was a staff sergeant at the logistical support base in Dalat in the central highlands of Vietnam. He doesn’t like to go into detail about his service.

“I don’t talk about my experiences in Vietnam,” he said. “It’s not something you normally talk about."

But he did talk about how that experience affected him.

“It changed my whole outlook on life,” he said. “I had never before then been in a position where you live day-to-day.”

Kutalu undeterred by injury, NSAA ruling

As a junior in 2016, Nathan Kutalu scored 18 goals and led Schuyler to the Class B semifinals.

After the season, he was named first team All-State by both the Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha World-Herald.

He was primed for a huge senior year.

Then he was ruled ineligible. Kutalu, who turned 20 on March 22, had his high school career cut short by the Nebraska School Activities Association's age restrictions.

“I was really disappointed,” the Schuyler senior said.

But this isn’t the end of the road for the immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Kutalu came to the United States a little more than three years ago. He brought his soccer skills with him.

In America, kids are exposed to countless sports. It's common for youths to play four or five different sports growing up.

But in the Congo, soccer trumps all. Some kids eventually gravitate toward basketball, but it pales in comparison to soccer.

Every young person knows how to play soccer, Kutalu said. “Sometimes you play with friends, sometimes in league.”

Kutalu was on the pitch nearly every day for 10 years prior to his arrival in America. Whether it was on dirt, grass or even sand, where there was a little room available, soccer was played.

“If you play in sand, it’s a little tough,” Kutalu said.

If there wasn’t enough room for a full game, they’d find a makeshift goal and one person to serve as goalie. The rest would shoot penalty kicks.

That background turned Kutalu into an All-State player.

His parents applied for the diversity visa program, an annual lottery that selects 55,000 people a year to immigrate to the United States. The program is open to those from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States in the previous five years.

The goal is to help diversify America’s population.

Kutalu’s parents weren’t selected the first year they applied. Driven by the American dream, they applied again.

This time they were selected, but they weren’t in the clear yet.

Next came the interview to determine if his family qualified to make the adaptation to life in America. They passed and received their visas. Kutalu, his parents and brother Tychique boarded an airplane headed to the United States.

Kutalu had no nerves about the move to a new country.

“I was excited,” he said.

The trip took two full days. They spent one night in Belgium before completing the journey.

Before making the trip, his parents called some of their Congolese friends living in Lincoln to scout for a place to live.

By the time Kutalu and his family reached Lincoln, their friends, including Kutalu’s uncle, had an apartment ready for them. They just had to pay the rent.

Kutalu attended Lincoln High School when he arrived in November 2013. He spoke little English at the time, but in only a month was able to understand the language.

“It was pretty fun,” he said of learning English. “At the beginning it was tough, but I like it.”

The language came easily to Kutalu, who is also fluent in French, the primary language in the Congo, as well as Lingala and Kikongo, two native Congolese languages. Kutalu said the similarities between French and English helped him master his fourth language.

The following August, Kutalu and his family came to Schuyler. The job market drew them to the area.

“My mom had to find a better job,” Kutalu said.

His parents found jobs at BD and Camaco.

The family settled in and Kutalu found his place on the soccer field in his sophomore and junior seasons.

The NSAA took soccer away from Kutalu for his senior season, and an injury sidelined him in August during Schuyler's summer league.

As he went to kick the ball during a game, an opposing player crashed into the side of Kutalu’s leg. He felt a crack, then pain. His leg started to swell up.

“I was scared,” Kutalu said. “I asked my friend after, 'Am I going to play again?’”

A visit to the doctor determined Kutalu broke his femur.

His focus shifted from the NSAA ruling.

“I knew I’m not going to play because of my age, but then I got injured in a league in Schuyler,” he said. “Right now I just think about that. The doctor said, 'You’re going to play after the rehab.’”

It took until this month for the bone to fully heal.

It may not be in high school, but Kutalu has every intention to get back on the field.

He’ll graduate from Schuyler Central High School this month before becoming the first person in his family to attend college. Kutalu plans to attend Central Community College in the fall and play soccer for the Raiders.

“They will be proud,” Kutalu said of his parents' reaction when he graduates.

Run still fun after move indoors

When the wind, rain and cold weather hit Friday, Schuyler Elementary School Fun Run organizers decided to let students break their least-favorite rule and run through the hallways of the school.

"It was kind of crazy," said Ingrid Ramirez. "But as teachers we're flexible."

They laid out a 1-mile course weaving through the school's hallways with staff stationed throughout to cheer runners on.

Ramirez sponsors the running club for SES's after-school program and created the Fun Run as a community activity to encourage kids and adults to exercise together.

The inaugural Fun Run held last year drew a little over 200 people. This year, in spite of the rain, Ramirez estimated around 300 people participated.

"The kids had a good time," she said. "That's what's important."

Colfax board awards gravel contract

Colfax County commissioners awarded the county’s 2017-18 gravel contract to low bidder Kroeger Sand & Gravel of Schuyler last week after a lengthy discussion on whether buying the material by cubic yard or weight was more economical for taxpayers.

The board voted 3-0 to accept Kroeger’s bid of $854,000 to supply the gravel that will be spread across county roads in the year ahead. The company’s bid was $8.90 per cubic yard of gravel ($534,000) and 32 cents per mile ($320,000) to haul the rock.

Kroeger was selected over Arps Sand & Gravel of Schuyler, which submitted an overall bid of $870,000. The company bid $9 per cubic yard ($540,000) and 33 cents per hauling mile ($330,000).

Before the board awarded the bid, retired local trucking company owner Chuck Misek suggested to commissioners that buying gravel by the pound or ton after it has been over a scale would be better than buying it by the yard with an estimate of the volume in a truckload.

People buy gasoline by the gallon after it’s been metered, they don’t buy about a gallon or tankful, Misek said.

“Nobody can guess a yard (of gravel)," he said.

Commissioner Gil Wigington countered that the number of cubic yards can be measured by lines inside the boxes that hold the material on the truck. The gravel is leveled off along the lines in the box, which provides an accurate yardstick of the number of cubic yards in a load.

Commissioner Jeff Bauman said he preferred buying a load of gravel after running it across a county scale for a more-precise measurement. He said he would vote to award the gravel contract to the low bidder this year, but planned to revisit the issue when the county seeks bids for next year’s pact.

Platte County buys its road gravel by the ton.

When Mark Arps came on board as county roads manager in 2009, the county’s annual gravel budget was about $600,000. That figure swelled to approximately $900,000 this year and is expected grow to more than $1 million next year.

The increased spending, said Arps, is because Colfax County now buys more white rock and crushed concrete, which is pricier than course gravel but has a longer life span on the roads.

“Twenty years ago, it was all gravel, but gravel gets ground down quicker by the heavier equipment and trucks that travel our roads now,” Arps said.