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How the military changed my life

Valerie Tobias
Valerie Tobias

VETERANS DAY is a time to honor all who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Those who swore with their lives – and those who paid the ultimate price, as well – share a bond few others understand. Military service changes people. Those who see combat death look upon life differently for the rest of their years. Those who enter the service without direction typically leave with it. Earlier this year, The American Legion Magazine asked readers to put pen to paper and explain how military service changed their lives. Hundreds of readers submitted their thoughts on mental toughness, discipline and education – how the service shaped them. Other submissions revolved around the lifelong friendships and unique bonds veterans have with one another and how they celebrate that camaraderie through The American Legion. Following are just a few of the  responses our readers sent in. Bill Pelozzi, Spokane, Wash.: As I left for basic training, my dad, an 8th U.S. Army Air Force World War II veteran, said, “Son, learn to take orders because one day you may be giving them.” I learned to take them. A lot was said in those few words. A few years later, I was giving orders in 1968, as a commissioned law officer. We became men at 17, 18 and 19 years old. I learned teamwork, learned how to move smartly, how color has no bounds and the blood of black, red and yellow men could, and did, save lives of white men, and vice versa. I learned that life is precious to all my fellow troops and that taking an enemy life is not pleasure, but cheating death and saving one. I learned to listen and to let my words be few. So, after 40 years of marriage, I am still reminded by my wife whenever she looks at my Navy photo and says, “That boy left and never came back.” Felicia V. Young-Wilkinson, Alexandria, La.: The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, changed my son’s life. Adam was about to graduate from high school and was beginning to realize that it was time to make some very important decisions about his future. As our family watched in horor at the plumes of dark smoke trailing skyward from the World Trade Center attacks, we spent the following days experiencing a universal pain over the enormous loss of life, that we knew we shared with many people across the country. I remember breaking down into tears in front of my husband and son, saying, “Those people did not deserve to die in that way.” The pain I was feeling for their families was acute. Looking back on that conversation, I only now have come to realize how it would affect our family as well. During that time, I approached my son about his plans for college. He looked me in the eye and said, “Mom, I’ve been sitting in a classroom for 12 years. I want to see what I can do with my life.” That resulted in his acceptance into the U.S. Army. He served as a fuel transporter (77 Fox) during Operation Iraqi Freedom, with his father in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. Adam decided to take his commitment a step further. Upon his return to the States, he decided to join the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment as a helicopter repairman in early 2005. But that was still not enough for him. He went to his 1st Sergeant and told him, “I want to do more.” With determination and a deep commitment, he studied and learned his craft well. Within two years time, graduating from “Green Platoon,” and after being in a heavy combat zone for five months in Operation Enduring Freedom, my son was promoted to sergeant and crew chief to aircraft 472 in October 2006. Adam chose to answer a higher calling. On Feb. 18, 2007, Sgt. Adam Alexander Wilkinson and seven other crewmembers and Special Forces soldiers gave their lives when their Chinook helicopter crashed in Afghanistan. Because of the bravery of the crew members in their attempts to land, 14 soldiers survived. I will never forget my son’s words to me when he returned from basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., during a time when I had chosen to go back to school and challenge myself. He said, “Mom, you just need to focus.” If I have learned anything from the loss of my 23-year-old son, it is this. Throuogh his experiences in the U.S. Army, Adam believed that with discipline, perseverance and a belief in himself, he could accomplish anything. Jeffrey Sealing, Denver: I was in the U.S. Navy from November 1987 until October 1995. My grandfather and uncle were in the same branch before me. At RTC Orlando, Fla., while exercising outside one November morning, I watched a space-shuttle launch. It was awe-inspiring. Later, I was part of the decommissioning crew of my first ship. Next came Operation Desert Storm. From that time, I have three pictures etched in my mind. First, my ship, AFS-2, did a supply run with an ammunition and oiler ship (AOE) on whose decks, in pods of 25 each, stacked six across and at least 30 deep on each side, were Tomahawk missiles; Saddam had no idea about U.S. military might. Second is the picture of mom waiting on the pier when my ship returned. Third, I flew to my hometown of Grand Junction, Colo., where then-Mayor Gary Lucero and some Vietnam veterans met me at the airport. Those veterans were there to say that Desert Storm vets would not have the same kind of homecoming they had, which was marked by violence and hatred. One final thing: I watched from a TV on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt, CVN-71, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Robert Frankenstein, Beaver Dam, Wis.: Basic training taught me teamwork. My military uniform gave me pride. Serving in Korea taught me how to defeat fear. Living in a foreign country taught me tolerance. Orphans of war taught me compassion. Coming home made me thankful. I live with a lifelong sense that touching Korea with democracy gave its people the opportunity to reach for world-class industrial and technological success. Some years ago, I was wearing my Korean War veteran cap at a Labor Day picnic. While enjoying the corn roast, two boys came up to me in the park and actually asked me if I wasn’t ashamed to let people know I was a veteran. I was taken back but quickly realized they just didn’t know better. That was the day I decided what I would do in my retirement. I would enlighten children by preserving hundreds of local veterans’ stories. Soon, that grew into writing a World War II book, then construction of a memorial park, a veterans museum and a memorial hall. Children can now research, walk, talk and volunteer with local living history at the American Legion Post 146 Veterans Center, or at the memorial or the museum. Thomas F. Sas, Houston, Texas: As a teenager, I was the cook at a pancake house, assistant butcher at a supermarket and the guy who made doughnuts all night at Dunkin’ Donuts. Therefore, I dropped out of school and joined the Marines at 17. The Marine Corps sent me to cooks school, then to Gitmo, where I was assigned to be the assistant mess sergeant because I was the only cook who had taken typing in high school (even though I failed the course). My CO ordered me to take a five-day GED course and two months later my high-school diploma arrived. Back in the States, I received orders to headquarters battalion and was assigned to be a personal steward for a commanding general. With a lot of time on my hands, I worked for the commissary, driving a food and beverage truck out to the ninth hole of the officers golf course and the pizza man off base. I was totally enveloped in the food and beverage industry. Upon receiving my honorable discharge, I used the GI Bill to graduate from college. To date, I have performed as executive chef, general manager and CEO of more than 400 restaurants/hospitality establishments. The military gave me this career and changed my life.

 

John B. Barcia, New Windsor, N.Y.: I was born on May 13, 1927, in a section of New York City called Little Italy. I was 14 when the war started, and when I turned 18, it was was still raging in the Pacific. I was drafted into the Army and sent to Fort Bragg, N.C., for basic training. I had never been anywhere in my life. At Fort Bragg, I met men from all over the country. I still remember the name of our drill sergeant, Buckholtz, after all these years. He was influential in shaping my life. At the end of our training, he selected me and some other men to go to Georgia for a six-week course in IBM machines. My first question was, “What is an IBM machine?” After our course was completed, we were shipped over to Germany and assigned to the 65th Machine Records Unit. I was stationed in Frankfurt from 1945 to 1947 and will never forget the horrors of war. The city was completely bombed out. I was there during the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals responsible for the Holocaust. All were sentenced to death by hanging. The hangman was Master Sgt. John O. Woods, and although I did not speak to him, I saw him in our mess hall. After I was discharged in 1947, I went to college on the GI Bill. My life certainly changed. I am very proud of my service in the Army. God bless America. Chris B. Traxson, Rogers, Ark. : I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps during a time of war, in May 2005. It was a great experience that has left a permanent, positive mark on my life. I was injured in Fallujah in October 2006 and spent more than two years in the Wounded Warrior Regiment before being medically discharged, honorably, in January 2009. I met great Americans in the short number of years I was enlisted in the service, from drill instructors all the way to the men with whom I served in combat. The camaraderie and cohesion among servicemembers cannot be matched anywhere in the private sector. I learned great life lessons in discipline, leadership, responsibility, honor, courage and commitment. I carry them with me in everything I undertake, on a daily basis. Military service is a commitment to a person’s country like no other. I will always treasure my short time in the U.S. Marine Corps and all the great experiences and people I came into contact with while I was enlisted. I was given regular opportunities to lead and develop my skills as a responsible American that have translated into instant success in civilian life.

 

Lt. Col. (ret.) James Burkholder, Jr., Bonners Ferry, Idaho: The son of an Idaho logger in the early 1960s, I knew life was tough. I went to work before dawn and worked all day. I worked with elderly men who believed in doing a day’s work for a day’s pay. They would not know retirement. They worked until they were disabled or dead. Dad’s war stories from the Philippines and Okinawa enamored me. I had uncles in the Big War and other kin who were in the Korean War. They gave me their medals and patches. So, of course, I joined the military, first to emulate my dad and family who had served our nation, second to receive a paycheck the back would cover, and third an opportunity for a retirement. Twenty-five years later, I did. In that time: 225 combat missions in the F-4 Phantom; nuclear alert in Germany and England; survived jump school during three years in the Army; missed my family from Korea; and admired America’s finest before retirement at the Air Force Academy. I was, and am, blessed. I have absolutely no regrets about my decision to serve my country and now thank God I have my health and retirement, things I wish could have come for my Dad and others long-gone, my fellow lumberjacks. Joe Zych, Okinawa, Japan: I was 19 years old when I joined the Marines and stayed 20 years. I came from a segregated town. My life was all white. The first morning in boot camp, there we were: all races, colors and creeds standing at attention together. Shortly afterward, we all went off to the war. One morning at about 2 a.m., I was attacked by Viet Cong, who threw a lot of hand grenades at me and many didn’t go off. My rifle was damaged, my arm was broken, and my head was in a daze. I couldn’t move. But a PFC named P.D. Jones came to my aid. Jones shoved live grenades to the side with his hands to make a path for me. I never even said thank you. Things happen so fast. Two things I do know: I saw a real hero push those grenades aside, and I thank God every day for life. Lt. Col. (ret.) Anthony J. Yates, Monroe City, Mo.: “You will get out of the service what you put into it, son.” These were the words of my World War II veteran father, when he said good bye to me on Aug. 24, 1965. On my way to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., I was kind of scared, somewhat reluctant, and not at all sure what the future would bring. What an adventure the military served up to me! The comradeship, esprit de corps, and lifelong friends were some of the positive aspects the Army presented for me. Officers Candidate School converted my academic record from mediocrity to achievement. The ability to accept challenges in leadership and scholarship later allowed me to pursue a civilian career in education, as wel as serving 28 years as a reserve officer. And the travel the military provided took me to places only Gulliver could dream of. A tour as an intelligence officer in Europe opened possibilities a Missouri farm boy could hardly imagine. Places like Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Riley, Kan.; Fort McClellan, Ala.; and Fort Hood, Texas, presented our country’s history to me. I am better for having worn our country’s uniform.

 

 

James W. Smith, Stigler, Okla.: In May 1960, I was 20 years old, single, with no children. The military draft would be knocking at my door very soon if I did not go back to college. Financially, I wasn’t sure I would be able to. This seemed like a good time to fulfill my military obligation. A friend and I joined the U.S. Army on June 6, 1960, in Oklahoma City. The significance of that date was not lost on us. For a few years prior to joining the Army, I had developed a very bad habit of quitting. I quit sports in high school. I almost quit high school. I quit relationships. I quit college twice. If I didn’t like the way things were going, instead of digging in and working my way through the problem, I just quit. The funny thing about the Army is you can’t just quit, honorably. It wasn’t easy on me or the Army, but I finally got the message. The Army taught me discipline, determination, organization, pride and loyalty. Ken Carville, Wendell Depot, Mass.: When I turned 16 in 1952, with Korea raging, I asked my parents if they would sign me into the service when I turned 17. They refused, and I rebelled. I got married and found that I had to get her permission to join. After a threat of divorce, she signed for me to volunteer for the draft. I was accepted into the Army and took my training at Fort Dix, N.J. After completing radio school, I was shipped to Korea and served 16 months in country, stationed on the north side of the Imjin River. I crossed the Freedom Bridge numerous times and learned the definition of gratitude, and of reverence, for the soldiers who crossed that bridge to freedom. I had a new respect for my family, who wanted me to be safe and out of harm’s way. It changed my life in that I learned things in the service that can’t be learned anywhere else. Keeping your room clean is a cake walk competerd to keeping the barracks clean. Close-order drill teaches teamwork and how to take orders before you are qualified to give them. It taught me that 0 degrees is warm compared to 40 below, and that there is a time for bitching and a time for fighting. I’ve seen things, done things and been places most people only read about. If I were given a choice between trading my military life for 10 more years on this earth, I’d say, “Take a hike, Mike.”

 

 

Doreen Nelson Murray, Nalcrest, Fla.: At the age of 84, I feel privileged and honored that I have served in the military by being a WAVE (U.S. Navy Reserve), Pharmacist Mate 3/c. Ifeel gratitude for the simple fact that I can finally say thank you for having had the opportunity to finish my education, a bachelor of science degree in education, from the University of Minnesota. I had finished my second year at the university when I enlisted in the WAVES, on my birthday. My parents had to sign for me with a promise from me that I would go back to school and finish my education. Of course, I agreed to that. I got my degree with the GI Bill. I kept my promise and finished my education. How else did the military affect my life? I met my husband, Earl. He too has served in the military, U.S. Navy, Pharmacist Mate 2/c. He had returned from the South Pacific in World War II, havieng been through Navy boot camp and then sent to the South Pacific to serve with the 1st and 3rd Divisions of the Marines. Now, at age 86, having been married to each other for 63 years, we are still together. We have had six sons, five living as productive citizens and great men. One died in infancy. It has been a great story and a great life. Thanks to the military and our lives together.

 

 

Don R. Jacobson, Hayward, Wis.: Discipline is the glue that holds the military together and changes a person from civilian status to military status. My four-year stint changed me from a 22-year-old kid to a 26-year-old man in record time. I voluntarily left college and signed up to fight for the U.S. Army. I then started to value my citizenship like never before. I started to respect people and institutions. But the GI Bill really transformed my life and outlook. I had a year of college, plus what I considered the equivalent of another year as a candidate for OCS. At age 26, I knew I had to get to work as a civilian, so I enrolled under the GI Bill in a piano-tuning school. (I liked music all my life.) this lef to owning and operating a retail music store for a good share of my life. I also became a piano entertainer and lecturer and recently won a gold medal in the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival.

 

Robert E. Johnson, Six Nations, Ontario, Canada: I joined the U.S. Marine Corps at point of entry, Buffalo, N.Y., March 1968, discharged March 1970, a Mohawk Indian introduced into the American culture and its diversity without any preconceived notions of people or distant lands. I chose the Marine Corps. It seemed to be in my interest to serve and experience the conflict of the time. I wanted to become a person of stature. I was experiencing personal challenges prior to enlisting and wanted major change in my existence. I served with 1/7/1 in the I Corps area, DaNang, as an 0311, a squad leader, a grunt for 13 months in country. Two birthdays were spent in the combat zone. I was asked a few times, “Why did you join?” My response was: “Because of the current reporting and the reports of many leaving the United States for Candada.” I was from Canada. I formed perceptions of people. For myself, a change came about, of positive approaches and meaning to the words “freedom reigns.” I, Robert E. Johnson of the Six Nations Reserve, Ontario, Canada, am a Mohawk Indian who served in the woods and in the bush. G. Wayne Hunt, Poway, Calif.: I have always been grateful to have joined the U.S. Navy after high-school graduation. As a young 17-year-old, I was surprised by the rigors of boot camp and visited a Navy chaplain a few times. He became a lifetime friend over the years. We named our son after him. I am grateful for the experience of having worked on the flight decks of two aircraft carriers, the USS Valley Forge, CV-45 and the USS Antietam, CV-36, during the Korean War. My Navy experience also allowed me to travel to Hawaii, the Philippines, Japan and Hong Kong as an 18-to-21-year-old. Lastly, I remember all the great buddies I met during my service. The discipline I acquired and the GI Bill allowed me to get a bachelor’s degree in business and later a master’s degree in management and a J.D. in law.

 

 

Robert J. Raney, Scandia, Kan.: My family lost everything in the Depression. During high school, I worked to earn money for books and necessities. I was 17 when I graduated. At 18, in 1943, I entered the U.S. Army Air Corps and was discharged in 1946. I was hired by a wholesale grocery firm and married in 1946. My job required me to have a car. I purchased a 1947 Frazier in July 1948, and my payments were $115 per month for 15 months. In December that year, the company announced it was closing. Jobs were scarce. My wife, a registered nurse, made $160 a month. My military training taught me not to panic and to seek a solution. I enrolled in college on the GI Bill, which covered my college expenses plus about $90 per month. I found a job as a night bartender that paid $170 per month. I attended classes from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. and tended bar six days a week from 5 p.m. until midnight for two and a half years, to get out of debt. I graduated with an advanced degree, became a college professor, and retired after more than 34 years of service. Clayton Ross, Walnut Creek, Calif.: I was no athlete, just a skinny kid without much energy. The discipline of morning calisthenics changed that. I discovered that the morning workout did not subtract from the energy I needed for the rest of the day; it increased it. So now, here I am, in my 80s. Lots of people my age are weak, sick or dead. But I am in great shape and good health. It must be those morning calisthenics I still do daily. And I am still skinny. Capt. (ret.) David Yarbrough, Coffeyville, Kan.: I was a very green country boy going to school in Nowata, Okla., and felt there was really no chance of my ever going to college. My family was poor. I wanted the good life, and I wanted to fly, but I knew it would never happen if I stayed in Nowata. I enlisted in the Air Force with two goals: one, to get my college education and the other, to become a pilot. I spent the first 14 months enlisted trying to get all my college credits together so I could apply to become an officer. This was pretty hard because I spent more than five of those years overseas, including a tour to Vietnam that interrupted my acceptance to Oklahoma State University under the Airman’s Education Commission Program. Upon my return from Vietnam, I was assigned to Pope AFB in North Carolina and while there I was hitting the books at three different colleges and universities at once. I had very little free time, with a wife and two beautiful girls, going to school and being in charge of the WRSK kits for C-130 aircraft. We had a deployment requirement to Germany and back to Pope, then England, then back to Pope. I had very good professors who would give me assignments, and I would mail them in. When I got all my credits together to apply for the Bootstrap Commission Program, I went to my commander to ask if he would write me a recommendation to place in my file going forward for the selection process. He indicated he really did not have time, but if I would write it, he would sign it. His secretary overheard this and told me should would help me write it. When I took it in for his signature, he said, “this looks like you can walk on water.” I told him the competition was so tough that I needed an edge other than my good grade-point average. I also asked him if he would make an appointment with his commander, so I could get his recommendation, which I did, all the way to division commander. I look back now and thank a very wise 1st sergeant who put the idea in my head because I was one of 40 selected, out of 400 who applied. I attended Officers Training School and went on to get my master’s degree. However, I never became a pilot. The Vietnam War was winding down, I was 32 years old, and the need was not there to get a waiver. I went on to complete 25 years in the Air Force. I loved the service. When I look back, I think all young people should spend at least one hitch in the military because it sure changes a person for the better. Bringing back the draft would not be a bad idea for America.

 

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