Dan Brewster

Retired Navy Reserve Commander Dan Brewster will be sharing his story about cooking for Vietnamese refugees, cleaning up after the Mount Pinatubo eruption, and handling $14 million in cash during the Owatonna Veterans Open Roundtable on Tuesday. (Submitted photo)

OWATONNA — “Have you ever seen $14 million in cold, hard cash?” Dan Brewster asked coyly before breaking out into laughter. “Well, I have!”

Back in the 1990s, handling money was one of the money things that Brewster experienced as a part of the Navy Supply Corps program. As an officer in the program, he was in command of supply depots that served the Navy in various places throughout the world, exposing him to new experiences, exciting people, and cherished memories.

On Tuesday, Oct. 8, Brewster will be sharing the story of his 30-year career in the U.S. Navy Reserve at the Owatonna Veterans Open Roundtable. The program begins at 7 p.m. at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Owatonna.

“I definitely recommend the Reserves or the Guard to a young person looking for some adventure or a second career,” said Brewster, who now resides in Faribault. “You meet truly incredibly people and those friendships are going to be lifelong. Plus there is no greater thing than serving something larger than yourself — and that would be the U.S.A.”

Enlisting in 1974 at the young age of 20, Brewster collected a number of interesting and unusual, if not unique experiences during his career. Within the first year of enlisting, Brewster volunteered to go to Camp Pendleton in California to cook for Vietnamese refugees escaping the brutal Vietnam War.

“My particular camp had 19,000 refugees. It was quite an ordeal,” Brewster said. “Those were long days in the chow hall from 4 a.m. until 7 p.m., working one day on one day off, for 45 days.”

Some of Brewster’s favorite memories from his service time included the “cruises” where the ships he was aboard would make port calls all around the world, from Spain to Italy to Acapulco. Though Brewster boiled down the general experience of being aboard ship as a “floating, enclosed camp,” he also fondly recalls many moments, such as when a school of porpoises “put on a show like Sea World” for a group of sailors.

“In the Navy, you’re always going to a fun spot,” Brewster chuckled. “A majority of my career was during the Cold War, and since that threat was worldwide all of our training and education opportunities were worldwide. I got to go to a lot of interesting places.”

Once Brewster enrolled in the Navy Supply Corps program, he jokes that the “real work got started” as the program was highly competitive and very intense. According to Brewster, the “wash-out” rate in the program was about 50% of those who enroll.

“I never thought I’d ever become an officer, but I’m really glad I did,” Brewster said. “I had seen some really good officers and I wanted to emulate their talents and qualities to make life a lot better for enlisted folks, and it helps to walk in the shoes of the enlisted before becoming an officer above them.”

Becoming the Interim Dispersing Officer for the Philippines Islands is where Brewster started encounter his next set of surprising experiences, including the handling of $14 million and once being questioned by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service — or NCIS. While the NCIS investigation, which centered around a discrepancy in some checks, was just a small blip on the radar for Brewster, it was in the same supply depot that he participated in the restoration efforts after the second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.

Mount Pinatubo erupted on June 15, 1991, and is considered to be by far the largest eruption to affect a densely populated area. The eruption produced high-speed avalanches of hot ash and gas, giant mudflows, and a cloud of volcanic ash hundreds of miles across.

“When it first started erupting we weren’t too concerned because it was 26 miles away,” Brewster stated, noting that there was an Air Force base right next to the volcano that evacuated just before the big eruption. “We got 10-12 inches of ash that drifted just like snow, 17 warehouses collapsed, and over 800 people lost their lives from collapsed buildings and lava flows.”

Brewster explained that it was nothing short than a huge threat to both the civilians and the U.S. bases and ports on the islands. Because the supply depot he ran was so integral to every day operations, Brewster said they immediately started working every day for 12-hours throughout a two week span to get up and running again.

“Without the Reserves there, that base would not have been brought back to operation in that short of time,” Brewster asserted. “There was an incredibly amount of work done by the Reserves, it was really something else.”

The Veterans Open Roundtable in Owatonna meets at 7 p.m. on the second Tuesday of the month at Good Shepherd Church.

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