Off Beat: Engineer's legacy bridged Army, confluence art

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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As a career Army officer and engineer, Bob Friedenwald served in Vietnam and worked in Iraq.

Sharing an office with artists certainly offered a nicer work environment. But that's not why the Vancouver man liked working at the Confluence Project.

"It was his favorite project. He loved everything about it," his wife, Peggy Bird, said. "He spent his whole career working with engineers, and now he's working with a bunch of artists. He spent his whole career working with men, and now he's mostly the only man in the room."

Friedenwald was project manager for the Vancouver Land Bridge, which celebrated its fifth anniversary Saturday.

Friedenwald didn't make it to the celebration; he died July 31 at age 77.

"Bob would say he loved this bridge, but it's a engineer's nightmare," said Jane Jacobsen, executive director of the Confluence Project. "No straight lines."

Early in his Army career, he was a combat engineer in Vietnam. "He got shot at a couple of times," Bird said.

Friedenwald had issues with the way the war was being handled and resigned his commission. He still owed the Army a year, and taught an ROTC history class at the University of California at Berkeley.

"That was the year (then-governor) Ronald Reagan tear-gassed the campus," Bird said.

Students didn't have to be in ROTC to take his class, and some were anti-war activists.

"It was really challenging, because of great discussions of when and why nations go to war. And he loved it! It convinced him that he didn't want to leave the Army," Bird said. "He stayed in until 1989.

"We married in 1989, and I missed the Army part of his life," she said.

Fifteen years later, he volunteered to help re-open Iraq's only deep-water port, which had been destroyed in the Iraq-Iran war.

As a retired Corps of Engineers colonel, "Bob knew port operations and he understood the federal government and how to get it to do things," she said.

He took a leave of absence from the Confluence Project and went to Iraq, and almost wound up in jeopardy. British military friends invited him along on a river patrol boat, but someone reminded him about a meeting.

His friends strayed into Iranian waters and were captured. The Brits were released, but her husband had nightmares about his close call, Bird said.

"He had an American passport and he was Jewish. He said that he'd probably still be there."

After doing so much work overseas, Friedenwald leaves a hometown legacy, Jacobsen said: "His grandkids can bring their friends to the Land Bridge."

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.