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101-year-old WWII veteran credits moderation, healthy living as secret to longevity

Mark McKell of Spanish Fork was two years out of college and living in Provo when he received a draft notice. It was 1942, and he was being asked to join the Army in the fight against Germany in World War II.

The Brigham Young University graduate, who had gotten married a year and a half earlier, boarded a train to Salt Lake on a freezing cold January morning and transferred onto a bus to Fort Douglas. He was sworn in, took his placement exams and headed to Fort Warren in Wyoming.

“I was expecting it,” McKell said about being drafted. The war had been going on for about two years, and he knew that his participation in it was both imminent and inevitable.

In a way, McKell was destined for the war. He was born on Sept. 17, 1918, less than two months before Germany signed a peace agreement that marked the end of World War I. But he was too young to be drafted for that one, he jokes.

Mckell ended up being stationed in Trinidad, a Caribbean island that is part of the British West Indies, for two years. Though he was never trained to use it, he remembers being armed with a pistol while driving to the Port of Spain to pick up mail, in case of danger. “I’d have to wear a pistol around there and never learned to shoot it!” McKell remembers.

McKell’s older brother, Arthur “Art” McKell, also served in the war. After getting sick with a bad cold, Art ended up transferring to the same island as his younger sibling. There, they got to sleep in the same barracks for a year and eight months.

The stroke of luck didn’t end there. Art received a 30-day pass to return home to Utah. The day before he departed, McKell’s commanding officer made an announcement to the unit. One of you gets to go home, the commander told the seven-person unit. To decide who got to temporarily leave Trinidad, the soldiers drew straws.

“And I drew the lucky straw,” Mckell said. He and Art got to go home together.

Still, the fortune continued. McKell and his wife had been married for four years, but had never been able to have any children with McKell overseas. During that trip home, they conceived their first child.

McKell was in Trinidad when he got word that the U.S. had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He knew the war would soon be over.

But McKell was ignorant to the haunting and horrific details of the Nazi regime, including the existence of concentration camps and the ethnic cleansing of Jews and other ethnic minorities.

“We never knew about all these camps where they were killing people,” he said. “We didn’t know that until after the war.”

In his years of service, McKell never found himself in any life-threatening situations. This wasn’t the case for some of his fellow BYU class of 1936 alumni, three of whom served in the Air Force and never returned home.

After the war, McKell took a job with the Spanish Fork post office after his mother suggested he apply. He ended up working there for 38 years until he retired.

McKell remembers leaving work one day to check on his mother, who lived three blocks away, as he did two or three times a day. On this occasion, he called her name and didn’t hear anything. He rushed down the hallway and found her stuck in the bathtub, unable to get out.

“If I hadn’t come that day she would’ve died,” McKell said. “She only weighed about 80 pounds.”

McKell turned 101 in September and credits his long life to “avoiding extremes,” staying physically active and eating healthy.

He walks around his Spanish Fork neighborhood six times every morning and another six times most afternoons. He eats tossed salads and creamed corn and has a healthy obsession with KFC mashed potatoes. For dessert, he usually opts for ice cream, Jell-O or Tapioca pudding.

The WWII veteran also likes to play the organ, something he picked up 30 years ago, and spending time with his 41 great-grandchildren.

McKell documents his life by writing in journals, a habit he learned from his great-grandfather who migrated to the states from Scotland. He keeps one of his great-grandfather’s passages that he finds to be particularly profound: “I was born in a land of kings and queens,” it reads. “But there is no royal blood (in the U.S.). We are all enjoying equal rights and privileges.”

Even with all the writing, McKell finds it hard to get the thoughts out of his head. “My biggest problem is going to sleep at night,” he said. “I guess I get too much on my mind.”

Ironically, McKell was awarded a plaque at his 1981 Spanish Fork High School reunion that read “The Only One That’s Never Gotten Old.”

“I’m probably the only one in our class left,” McKell laughs.

Utah Valley organizations empower veterans in unique ways

There are well over 100,000 veterans in Utah. Many of them are older, having served during World War II, the Vietnam era or in one of the Gulf Wars. However, as of at least 2015, one-third of the veteran population in Utah was considered “younger,” or below 55 years old.

Along with a handful of veterans centers across the state, there are several Utah-based nonprofits, many of them founded by veterans, that have been created to better support the veteran population.

Warrior Rising

One such nonprofit is Warrior Rising, based in Salt Lake City and founded just four years ago. Although he isn’t originally from Utah, Warrior Rising has played a significant part in the life of Dave Dequeljoe, who moved to Utah earlier this year to work at Provo-based Qualtrics.

Originally from New York and a veteran of the Navy, Dequeljoe said he was going through a rough patch when he found out about Warrior Rising through another veteran organization just last year. The organization’s goal, which is to empower veteran entrepreneurs, spoke to Dequeljoe.

The organization flew him out, Dequeljoe said, to attend an event where he learned about business principles, was gifted a suit and connected to several mentors.

“It’s kind of turned my whole life around, really,” he said.

Through the Warrior Rising organization and the mentors he met, Dequeljoe said he was able to raise funding to finish writing a book about his experiences battling mental illness after serving in the Navy, titled “Dogfighting Depression.” Currently he’s working on editing the book again, but he said it’s still available to anyone who needs it.

“My mom’s best advice to me when I was a kid was if you’re ever not feeling that great about yourself, the very best thing you can do is sort of help others,” Dequeljoe said. “So I was like, I’ll just write a book about all the things I’m going through and just try to just get it into the hands of as many as I (can).”

Since publishing his book, which is available to purchase as a PDF online and also available to preorder as a hardcover, Dequeljoe said he has had people reach out to say that sharing his story helped save their lives.

“It’s been really rewarding,” he said.

But besides helping him finish and publish his book, the most important thing Warrior Rising did was help connect him to a community, Dequeljoe said.

“I wasn’t just by myself anymore ... the (mistake) that I make, that probably a lot of veterans do is like hey, I don’t want to be the one that needs help,” Dequeljoe said. “So I just really didn’t want to go to anybody and ask for anything.”

But having an organization founded and run by fellow veterans, Dequeljoe said, made him feel instantly comfortable. He felt he was able to ask for help when he needed it and feel supported.

“I love the camaraderie, like we’re all rooting for each other, and we all help each other out,” he said. “So it’s kind of like establishing a military unit outside the military, which feels very comfortable feels very familiar.”

In an effort to pay it forward, Dequeljoe started a chapter of Warrior Rising here in Utah County, starting with fellow veterans working at Qualtrics. The company helps to sponsor lunches once a month that veterans are free to attend to learn more about the organization. Learn more by visiting the Warrior Rising website or by emailing Dequeljoe at dave@warriorrising.org.

“Sometimes you just need to meet somebody or get pointed in the right direction,” Dequeljoe said. “We’re here for them if they need (us).”

Racing Anxiety

Another nonprofit organization founded by a veteran here in Utah Valley is also looking to equip veterans with the skills they need to overcome challenges and live their best lives, both in and out of the business world. Racing Anxiety, founded by Tapley Mitchell, was inspired by Mitchell’s personal dealings with PTSD, depression and anxiety after serving in the Navy.

For the first little while of living as a civilian, Mitchell said he struggled and the only thing that made him feel better was getting in his car and driving as fast as he could up to Squaw Peak. Then, while attending Utah Valley University to study automotive technology, and later business management, a professor invited Mitchell to join the racing team. Although students aren’t able to drive the cars, they get to help design and build them. Mitchell said he fell in love with racing.

Besides finding a hands-on experience that helped to alleviate some of his struggles, Mitchell said he began to apply some of the things he was learning while studying to his personal life, eliminating waste from his home and life. He also started to study leadership skills and other kind of personal development. The things he learned and applied, Mitchell said, changed his life.

“I just realized, if it worked for me, this is something that I could develop with other people,” he said.

Mitchell said he spoke with professionals, including a couple of therapists he knew, to see if his ideas would hold water. They did, and so Mitchell set to developing a 12-step program, which he said is currently being refined.

“It’s a 12-step program that helps people learn the skills that they need for personal development and to be able to eventually live the life that they want to live despite the mental challenges that they may face,” Mitchell said. “Anxiety and depression probably aren’t going to go away from the people that are diagnosed with it, but that doesn’t mean that they have to let it rob them of the experience that they want to have.”

Along with the program, of course, there is the hands-on experience that helped Mitchell so much: racing. The program is still small, having received its official nonprofit designation this past summer, so members make up a single team that recently finished its first project of building a “drift trike.” Mitchell said that even though program participants typically don’t have a background in any kind of manufacturing or building, it’s incredible to see them rise to the challenge.

Being a part of the Racing Anxiety team is not a replacement for professional services veterans may need, Mitchell said, and the organization will help connect veterans to those resources. But it is a network of people that can be reached at any time.

“If you were to come to our team, you’d be introduced to a whole bunch of people who struggle with mental illnesses and injuries and they get it. They understand what it’s like to have an anxiety attack or depression attack or night terrors or relapses,” Mitchell said. “And we all kind of agree ... that you could call any one of us, any time of the day.”

One of the goals Mitchell has for Racing Anxiety is to also help educate people who aren’t veterans or who don’t have mental illnesses about how to be a friend to those who are and do.

Shortly after graduating high school, Mitchell said he lost a friend to suicide, and that he couldn’t wrap his mind around the kind of suffering his friend went through. Coming back after serving the Navy, however, and battling his own mental illness for the first time was eye-opening. Now, he hopes to give people the kind of education he wished he’d had to better understand his friend’s suffering and how to help.

“Every day when I wake up and I read stories about veterans that struggle or high school students that struggle with anxiety or depression, that is fuel on my fire,” Mitchell said.

The most important thing for people to know for now, Mitchell said, is that overcoming mental illness is a long-term battle that requires patience and persistence. But things will get better, he said.

“If somebody loses today, if they have a panic attack or they decided to stay home from work or from school, that’s not the end of the battle.”

Learn more about Racing Anxiety and get involved by visiting http://racinganxiety.org.

Project Tala: BYU students paint downtown Provo mural honoring Polynesian heritage

A north-facing brick wall off of University Avenue just got more artistic after two Brigham Young University students designed and painted a mural to honor their Pacific Island heritage.

Enoch Lui and Teiano Lesa, both of whom study advertising at BYU, had the idea for the “passion project” after feeling like their cultures needed greater visual representation in Utah. Lui is half Tongan and Lesa is half Samoan.

“People here (in Utah), more than anywhere else, understand what Polynesians are,” Lesa said, noting that the state has one of the highest concentrations of Polynesians in the country. “But they don’t know a lot about the culture.”

Lesa designed the mural based on traditional Tongan and Samoan tattoos, which were the basis of storytelling, communication and genealogy prior to Pacific Islands having a written language.

“It’s just such a huge part of the culture,” Lesa said about the tattoo designs.

Next to the mural is a gold sticker reading “#ProjectTala,” which translates to “Project Storytelling.” Lui said that the project is “basically … in honor of our ancestors” who migrated to Utah Valley.

Another motivation for painting the mural is to keep traditions alive and fresh in the minds of younger Pacific Islander Americans, Lui said.

Living in the United States, “sometimes part of our traditions (and) our cultures can easily get forgotten.

“We just wanted to create something that our future generations of kids can look at and be proud of their culture and remember where their ancestors came from,” Lui said.

The mural is on the side of Getout Games in Provo, who gave the students permission to use the wall space.

The left half of the black, blue and silver design features traditional Samoan tattoo designs while the right side has patterns found in Tongan culture.

A number of BYU students and members of the Polynesian community joined Lui and Lesa on Saturday to make finishing touches on the mural.

“We just really wanted to do something for the community,” Lui said.