A ‘Dinosaur of war’

A 'Dinosaur of war'
Most men in their 50s start thinking about retirement and taking it easy. But 55-year-old Larry Tentinger just returned from his second tour in Iraq, giving him four combat tours in three wars with three different military branches.

Such grit could be expected from a man who fought for survival after weighing two pounds at birth. Now, at 5-foot-6 and 180 pounds, he looks forward to the state powerlifting meet where he plans to break his personal record of lifting more than 500 pounds.

But Chief Petty Officer Tentinger has shown he is every bit as mentally tough and filled with a passion to serve his country. During his tours, he has served with the Army, Navy and Marines.

"I'm proud to serve my country," he said. "As a combat medic, being called ?Doc' by members of the Marine Corps is an honor."

He has served in the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf War and now for two tours with Operation Iraqi Freedom. During his first OIF tour, he was part of the unit to first reach Baghdad and Tikrit. He has twice left his position at The University of South Dakota School of Education during the past four years for military service, volunteering for the second tour.

For his service, he was selected as the 2004 Reserved Forces Sailor of the Year from among 55,000 enlisted Navy reservists.

Tentinger admits his battle-weathered look gained him a moniker during the first OIF, when his unit captured the palaces of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"After we had secured a palace compound, we allowed international reporters to come in. I was the oldest line corpsman in the Marines, and a French reporter gave me the title of ?Dinosaur of War,'" Tentinger said.

Tentinger shows incredible tenacity and dedication to the military service, and the USD staff gladly covers for him during his deployments, said Dean Hank Rubin.

"It's a little bit unusual, among groups of students or colleagues, to find someone who could drop down and do 20 push-ups as part of his regimen," Rubin said. "But he shows the same level of regimentation in his teaching. With Larry, when you give him an assignment, it's going to get done, and he won't stop until he gets it done."

Tentinger brings those strong traits to the classroom and relates well to people, Rubin said. In turn, Tentinger's students and colleagues follow and respect him because of his example, the dean added.

Tentinger also provides an interesting contrast of personalities, Rubin said.

"Larry is quite an extraordinary fellow. He is the most elite of the elite trained soldiers, who can handle weapons more than anybody else I have ever known. He is built like the military tanks that he supervised," Rubin said. "Yet, whenever you sit and talk to him, he is such a warm, approachable kind of person. He is so genuine in his dealings. All the veneer of military officialdom melts away."

Tentinger began his military service when he was drafted into the Army in 1969. He served as a combat medic in Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division from 1969-70.

Tentinger left the Army after Vietnam and, after a two-decade absence from the military, joined the Naval Reserve in 1989. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, he was mobilized and shipped out to the Persian Gulf, where he served as a medic at a field hospital in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm from 1990-91.

He also served as a senior corpsman in an infantry battalion with the Marines in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and was part of the first unit to reach Baghdad and Tikrit.

Tentinger's most recent tour with the Navy in Iraq and Kuwait from December 2004 to November 2005 gave him the opportunity to work closely with the Army as part of a joint force operation.

Tentinger said his Desert Storm and OIF tours allowed him to see the major progress in Kuwait over a decade. As his unit prepared to move into Iraq during his 2003 tour, Tentinger was reminded of the mission.

"My platoon commander told us the night before we went in, ?We are not here to take over a country, we are here to set a country free,'" he said.

At Nisarya, Tentinger said he ran into firepower unlike any he had seen in Vietnam, calling it "the gauntlet." But he found a different response as his unit marched to Baghdad and Tikrit. Tentinger likened the experience to his grandfather's stories about liberating France during World War I.

"As the first units up those roads, we could see what Saddam's regime had done to the people in the villages. There was virtually no medical care available, schools were closed down and people were living in poverty," he said. "I personally saw women and children dancing with tears of joy running down their face. We were there setting them free, and I will never forget we made the difference in the lives of the Iraqi people."

Saddam's army had left behind tremendous stockpiles of weapons and ammunition, Tentinger said.

"School buildings were filled to the ceiling with ammunition. We tried to secure it, but we didn't have the people power to hold it. Our mission was to keep working with different sectors of the city," he said. "We were coming back the next morning, and there we saw people dragging ammunition down the streets."

As Tentinger's unit reached Tikrit � Saddam's hometown � they saw the towers of Saddam's elite Republican Guard. Tentinger's unit expected fierce resistance, but instead found many of the rank-and-file Iraqi soldiers deserting the army.

"When (the young soldiers) met any form of our resistance, they changed into civilian clothes. The next morning, you could tell 22- and 23-year-old men with clean white shirts who had left their mission," Tentinger said. "They had been fighting out of fear (for Saddam), and they were happy to be out from under that regime."

Tentinger's unit found 16 of Saddam's palaces along the Tigris River, displaying the dictator's self-indulgence at the expense of his people.

"Saddam put up a wall 30 feet high so the people couldn't see inside it. They had guard towers around it," Tentinger said. "He had built these palaces so elaborate that one of them had a lake built around it with water pumped from the Tigris River. Each palace was valued at $14 million, and he had 16 buildings.

"A few of these places were still under construction. Saddam was getting money from somewhere. There was so much corruption," Tentinger added.

Saddam tried to turn himself into a cult figure, Tentinger said.

"Saddam was so vain, that from 10 miles out of the city, every light pole in the whole highway was lit up like the interstate, and every 50 feet there was a picture of him on it," Tentinger said. "When you get five miles out of the city, there was a 50-foot high mural of him."

Shortly after arriving home, Tentinger volunteered to return to finish the mission. He served as chief operations officer with the Navy Fleet Hospital based in Kuwait. While the hospital was land-based, his unit's vehicles amassed a combined 300,000 miles working with patients.

"We provided the top medical care of any hospital in Iraq or Kuwait. We were the only hospital in the theater to have a CAT scan," he said. "We also had the top surgeons. Our doctors were orthopedic surgeons for regional hospitals (back home). Instead of having to transport severe cases to Germany, we could do a lot of surgery right there."

While overseas, Tentinger put his education background to good use. He was asked to put together a series of presentations and lectures to allow the Army to better understand other military branches as part of the increasing joint operations.

And thanks to the wonders of e-mail, Tentinger helped USD graduate student Mike Marek prepare and defend his doctoral dissertation despite the nine hours' time difference and nearly 7,000 miles between them.

"I would come in from the field, take off my flack jacket and try to become collegiate (with the dissertation)," Tentinger said.

Back in Vermillion, Rubin said he was astounded at the partnership between Tentinger and Marek, which included Tentinger joining campus committee meetings on Marek's effort via the telephone.

"That was probably the most long-distance dissertation effort you will ever see," Rubin said. "Larry worked with e-mail copies, which was the equivalent of using the red pen."

Tentinger arrived home in November, allowing him time to acclimate to campus life for second semester, Rubin said. The lengthy absences will not harm his professional standing or effort to achieve tenure at USD, Rubin added.

While Tentinger said he is glad to be back at USD, he was happy to play a historic role in Iraq.

"You don't hear about all the good things going on over there," he said. "They have 3,000 hospitals and schools in the country. I would say, in 97 percent of the country, people are living better lives than they did for the past 30 or 40 years."

Tentinger said he looks for good things to continue in Iraq.

"A vacuum was created when Saddam was taken out of power, and when that occurs, three things can happen. The fighting continues, the country is taken over by a dictator or they throw out the ruling party and need to work together for success," he said. "What is happening, there is discussion in the Iraqi parliament between the Shiites and Sunnis. Eventually, they are going to agree on the need to work together. It takes time."

The loss of three soldiers from the Yankton-based Charlie Battery from Dec. 4 roadside bombs at Baghdad shows the importance of bringing stability to Iraq, Tentinger said.

"It adds more fuel to the fire that we have to stay the course," he said. "We have to look at the big picture that freedom is not free. We have to pay a higher price, helping to ensure stability around the world."

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