U.S. Army Colonel Dennis Meyer (Ret.) earned a Bronze Star in the Vietnam War, and went on to serve in nine states and eight foreign countries during his 28-year military career. Meyer rose to the rank of full-bird Colonel, serving as the Senior Army Medical Health Care Administrator for the Office of Secretary of Defense, in Washington D.C.
But before all this, he was Helena High's first two-time State wrestling champion in 1961-62, and a 3-year starter for the University of Montana's football team. And he credits much of the foundation for his distinguished military career to the work ethic he learned on ranches in the Helena Valley, and the competitiveness he fostered on the mats and the gridiron.
The oldest of four athletic brothers, Meyer built a tempered-steel physique by bucking bales and countless push-ups, resulting in school push-up records, and back-to-back State 165-pound grappling titles his final two years at HHS.
When he upset a pair of older, favored matmen for his first crown as a junior, Dennis told this reporter in 1999, “I didn't care who they were, I was not going to lose. That's what wrestling taught me.”
An all-state prep gridder for the Bengals, Meyer was a 5-foot-9, 190-pound offensive guard for the Grizzlies from 1964-66. Out-weighed by 30-50 pounds on every play, he was bull-strong with “refuse to lose” determination. He was also a two-time, top-three placer in the Big Sky Conference wrestling tournaments.
After graduation from the UM with a BS in Physical Science and completion of ROTC, he married Molly McVey, a Helena Cathedral High alum, before attending jump school with the Special Forces (Green Berets). Dennis and Molly would parent two children, Kirk and Jennifer.
Meyer served as a Medical Supply Operations Officer at Fort Bragg from 1967-68, followed by his first command post to Ft. Gulick in the Canal Zones, with the 255th Medical Detachment.
As Commander assigned to the 8th Special Forces Group (Airborne), part of a Special Action Force, Meyer planned for and supervised execution of combined medical operations in support of internal defense and development programs.
They were involved with numerous action assignments throughout Central America,” his wife Molly related. “He was also involved with 'A Team' assignments in Guatemala.”
A superior officer reported that “Lt. Meyer is intensely enthusiastic, cooperative and imaginative,” and had achieved an enviable status of respect and admiration from his subordinates and peers.
He has a 'can do' attitude concerning all problems and operations, and is quick to remedy observed deficiencies in his command,” the report stated.
Meyer next deployed to Long Binh, serving two tours in Vietnam. As Detachment Commander with the 24th Evacuation Hospital, and working with Special Forces, among his duties were training Cambodians in Airborne Operations.
Like all brave men, it's difficult to get them to talk about combat zone experiences. But I did learn in my 1999 interview that he performed 31 in-country parachute jumps, earning the Bronze Star, the Vietnam Service Medal with 2 Bronze Service Stars, the Meritorious Service Award and the Legion of Merit Award.
"My Dad really felt the trauma that the war brought, he often shared a story about a helicopter accident he parachuted into as a medic,” his daughter, Jennifer, recently texted. “The blades had gone through the helicopter and he spent so much time trying to assemble bodies to assure that families received their entire loved ones remains.”
Jennifer said she admired the efforts her father placed as a commander in helping his soldiers to readjust after being deployed.
"Dad shared the letters that he wrote family members of a soldier under his command who succumbed to drug use and how absolutely brokenhearted he was,” she recounted. “I felt like he was ahead of his time in recognizing a kind of culture shock soldiers have in making this transition and the hardship it had on his soldiers’ families.”
Next he served at Fort Lewis, from 1973-76, as Company Commander and Executive Officer with Group SI.
With the fall of Saigon in 1975, as part of Operation New Life, the 423rd Medical Company (Clr) deployed to Guam overnight. Over the course of a 2-month period, Meyer, who was “hand picked to lead the 1st team,” averaged 15-18 hour workdays, seven days a week.
During this time his unit cared for 60,000 Vietnam refugee patients, with a peak workload of over 3,000 without a single death.
"This unusual and enviable accomplishment was realized only through the dedicated and outstanding performance of duty of the Garrison Commander of that unit, CPT Meyer,” a superior wrote, helping him garner the Humanitarian Award. “(His) leadership talents, tireless efforts, military knowledge and overall ability enabled him to field a unit whose morale, espirit and professional competence was without peer of all the units participating in Operation New Life.”
Jennifer Meyer recalled her father's stories about setting up refugee processing centers to aid Vietnamese refugees.
"He told me that he placed so much effort in getting proper latrines to honor the dignity of the people,” she related. “Vietnam certainly left a mark on Dad's heart.”
The remainder of Meyer's duty stations included Washington D.C. (1977-82), as Career PLNS and ALGN Officer; Heidelberg, Germany (1982-85), HHC 7th Medical Command, CH Enlisted Personnel Division; Fort Lewis (1985-87), HQ Service Co. 3 SPT, and HSC 99th SPT BN, Battalion Commander; and Tacoma (1987-91), Madigan AMC AME, and ADM CH PROF Services.
After being promoted to full-bird Colonel, he closed out his active duty stint at Walter Reed Hospital (1991-93), serving as the Program Manager Senior Army Medical Health Care Administrator for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Health Affairs, Corporate Information Management.
"Dennis considers this assignment to be his greatest accomplishment while in the army,” Molly said. “He developed a program that would provide medical care for soldiers and their families through retirement.”
Tri Care for Life CHAMPS had been scheduled for discontinuation within a few years, if not for Meyer's efforts.
"Promote this officer to general now,” a superior wrote, “COL Meyer was personally selected to serve as a program manager for Coordinated Care Program the number one priority project in DoD Health Affairs. He has done more in the joint environment to move this project ahead than anyone else.
"COL Meyer is an officer who is capable of any task.”
Dennis retired to Tacoma, employed as the Director of Operations with a Health Care Delivery Program for the DAV's of all branches of the armed forces. At the age of 76, he currently resides in the American Lake VA Medical Center, suffering advanced stages of Parkinson's.
"My Dad did air rescues in (the Vietnam jungle) impacted by Agent Orange, and the Parkinson's is attributed to that exposure,” Jennifer wrote.
Encapsulating her father's legacy, she related how Meyer treated those under his leadership with a “holistic approach,” since he was invested in helping them in all aspects of his life.
"He really led with his heart which always left an impression on me,” she said. “I admire him so much.”
Curt Synness, a Navy veteran, can be reached at 406-594-2878 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He's also on Twitter @curtsynness_IR