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Santa Rosa Rotary and Kiwanis clubs salute military veterans at annual luncheon

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A Marine Corps veteran who was badly wounded in a steaming jungle in Vietnam and later fretted exile to some frigid outpost for shoving the vice president of the United States, starred Thursday at a Santa Rosa luncheon saluting military veterans.

In his keynote address to the 19th Tribute to Our Veterans, Chris L’Orange recounted being a “green as grass” lieutenant when he assumed command of a combat reconnaissance platoon in 1969. He learned right away that his predecessor left Vietnam weeks earlier “missing both legs, one hand and the lower part of his jaw.”

Looking into the eyes of the young Marines he would lead and whose lives he was suddenly responsible for, L’Orange told a crowd of more than 500 at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building, the reality of war abruptly hit home.

Now 73 and a seasoned attorney living in Orinda, L’Orange lightened the mood of the flag-bedecked, pre-Veterans Day program with his tale of pushing Spiro Agnew in order to prevent the beleaguered vice president from entering the White House Blue Room to speak with the similarly besieged President Richard Nixon.

The instant after the altercation, L’Orange said, “Agnew just stands there. He’s so mad he can’t see straight.”

L’Orange, then 27 and just six weeks from completing his obligation to the Marine Corps, could only wonder what would happen next.

His keynote address capped the luncheon for veterans hosted each year by the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs in Santa Rosa. Vets from all eras are treated to a bag lunch and liberally thanked for their service, whether or not it involved combat.

The Elsie Allen High School marching band saluted the vets and their hosts with a rousing performance on the vets hall stage.

Vocalist Crystal McDougall, who will perform in this fall’s Santa Rosa Junior College production of “The Sound of Music,” charmed the assembly with her renditions of the National Anthem and “God Bless America.”

Leading the flag salute was the senior veteran in the hall, retired stockbroker and community philanthropist Al Maggini. He turned 104 in September.

Among the runner-ups to Maggini was 97-year-old Robert Olsten of Santa Rosa, who took part in the Allied invasion of France in 1944 as part of an Army anti-aircraft battalion.

The retired electrician recalled over lunch that as he stood at 21 outside a Southern California draft hall in 1943, a World War I veteran approached and shook his hand.

“He said to me, ‘Son, you’re going to have experiences worth a million dollars. And when you’re done, you wouldn’t have done it for a million dollars,’ ” Olsten said.

Olsten said the vet was right. He looks back fondly at his service overseas, especially at the bond he shared with fellow GIs.

Were a most adorable couple presented at the luncheon, it would have gone to Santa Rosans Bob and Phyllis Clement. Both 96, they met and fell in love while both served with the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1945.

Speaker L’Orange, whose service brought him two Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart, focused much on the realities of combat and the unique connection among fellow warriors. But he finished to laughter with the telling of stories, including the one about him and Vice President Agnew and the shoving match outside the Blue Room.

It was 1973 and L’Orange has been assigned to the Nixon White House as a social aide. He told of being on duty for a state dinner in honor of a prime minister from Southeast Asia.

A superior told him that Nixon, then facing impeachment, was meeting with the visitor in the Blue Room and demanded that they not be interrupted.

Suddenly Agnew and some aides appeared.

“Like a torpedo, he’s headed for the Blue Room,” L’Orange said. He said the vice president was hot to see Nixon “to get him to get the federal investigators in Baltimore off of his back because they were very close to indicting him for accepting bribes.”

Following his orders, Marine L’Orange blocked Agnew from approaching the Blue Room doors, and told him he was ordered to allow no one to enter.

Agnew’s face turned crimson, L’Orange said. “His eyes were about ready to bug out.”

The vice president placed his hands on the young Marine’s chest and L’Orange said he reflexively pushed back. At once he’s thinking, “If there’s a guard detachment of one in the Arctic, I’m going to be sent there.”

But just about then, the president and the visiting head of state emerged from the Blue Room and Agnew hoofed after them.

A bullet dodged.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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