Leroy Blessing enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1950, when he was 17. He hadn't yet completed high school.
"What was I like as a 17-year-old? A rambunctious kid," Blessing said. "I felt like I wasn’t getting the excitement that I needed in high school. The Marines were the best of all the outfits and I wanted to be the best, so I went down and signed up."
The decision he made as a teenager led to a 20-year career in the military, including tours of duty in Korea and Vietnam.
After Korea, he met his wife Edna on a blind date. They were married for 50 years. She proved to be helpful as a military wife with other younger wives whose husbands were serving in Vietnam. Blessing said that for many of them, it was really their first time on their own. "She did a tremendous job."
But Vietnam wasn't just hard on those left at home. Blessing's second tour of duty there was particularly difficult. Aside from combat, even a hired barber proved dangerous to his men. The barber was hired as a friendly Vietnamese by U.S. Intelligence.
"He was an excellent barber, but he’d lay down his clippers, his scissors and his comb, and he’d have to go to the restroom," Blessing said.
After an unexpected firefight one night, Blessing and his sergeant went to see what was on the line. "The only guy we found was the guy that was the barber."
In his pocket: notes with ammunition and storage posts plotted out.
"Most frightening - my sleeping quarters was also plotted out on the map."
If the barber hadn't died, the lives of many of Blessing's men could have been lost.
Blessing retired from the military as a captain in 1970. After two tours of duty in Vietnam, including serving in the Tet Offensive, he did not want to return for a third.
"I saw all the combat I wanted to see. I saw all the lost lives and so forth. I had no desire to go back and relive that memory again."
But the Marines did have a positive impact on his worldview. "It makes you more considerate of other people's actions . . . . It makes you more compassionate, I think."
The military isn't the only place Blessing earned distinction. This summer, at 80 years old, he went back to Fort Wayne, Ind., to receive his high school diploma.
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