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Veterans reflect on war experiences

Though World War II ended more than 60 years ago, the experiences of those who have been called the Greatest Generation have not been forgotten. Nor have the efforts of those who've served since, in places like Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.

A great generation

Del Reynolds is 83 years old. The former United States Marine and Sunnyside resident served in World War II in the Pacific from August 1944 to July 1945.

"Guam was really the only action I was involved in," Reynolds said.

Working in transportation for the Marine Corps Air Group No. 21, Reynolds said he didn't get to see a lot of combat, but he saw a lot of people around him wounded or killed.

"I guess you'd say it made me appreciate life a little bit more," he said.

Reynolds said he joined the Marines because his little brother was drafted. He wanted to take his brother's place. They wouldn't let him.

But Reynolds went anyway.

"I never really felt that it was a sacrifice when you're doing something I believe in," he said. "That's the only way you're ever going to be free."

Whether soldiers faced combat or not, Reynolds said what he faced as a fresh-faced 22-year-old kid changed him as a person.

He wasn't highly decorated; he wasn't wounded. But he's still proud to be a Marine and an American as anyone who drives by his home on Nicolai Avenue can tell. He's got a Marine Corps flag flying outside.

Reynolds is not alone in his thinking. The sentiment is strong among those who've served.

Just ask Robert Jones. He served in Korea.

A soldier's luck

Jones, now 79, arrived in South Korea in February 1951. It didn't take long to get involved in the action. He was wounded in combat in April.

During a firefight, Jones was shot in the knee. The bullet ricocheted off his kneecap and missed an artery in his leg. He said he walked five hours with the wound.

"Thank God I didn't have any broken bones and was able to walk," Jones said.

If he hadn't been able to, Jones said he probably would have died out there.

"I realized I had someone looking out for me that night," Jones said.

He was lucky, doctors told him.

"The doctor told me I had a million dollar wound," he said.

Jones recovered fully after spending time on a Navy hospital ship, the USS Haven, and was sent back to active duty.

He received four bronze stars for his service in Korea. He worked on a 57mm recoilless rifle at first and moved up to gunner. He also said he was all over the Korean peninsula, though he served mostly near Seoul.

"I don't know how many times I went back and fourth across the 38th parallel," Jones said.

That was the dividing line between the north and the south; between communism and capitalism.

In December 1951, Jones left Korea. After being sent to Japan, he left for the states after 11 months on active duty.

Jones said he thought the Korean War wasn't handled terribly well.

"Looking back, I think the Korean War was very poorly handled," Jones said. "But you do what you're told."

Though Korea may not have been handled the right way in the eyes of many who served, it doesn't compare to one of America's most controversial wars.

A war's stigma

Curt Nealen doesn't think Vietnam movies are very accurate. He would know.

Nealen served on the Mekong Delta from December 1969 to December 1970.

He said despite the things that have been said and shown in movies about Americans, it simply wasn't true.

"I met some of the finest men I've ever met over there," Nealen said.

He also saw a lot of scum too, he said, working in a judge advocate general's office.

Nealen also witnessed the ugly side of war at home. Protests were well underway when he shipped out. In fact, he witnessed a protest, and the government's response, first hand.

"I watched American troops prepare to do crowd detail on American people on a Civil War battlefield," he said.

In Vietnam, Nealen said he worked as part of a support staff. He said there were 12 to 14 people for every soldier who pulled a trigger.

He was never wounded, and never saw real combat duty, but bases all around his were hit during his time in Vietnam.

The threat of attack from the Viet Cong was very real. And of course, it wasn't just the Viet Cong.

"Every weapon in our arms room we captured was Chinese," he said.

Coming home wasn't a terribly fun experience either. The flight home took 50 hours.

Being a Vietnam veteran wasn't terribly great for his image either.

"Of course there's a stigma," he said. "It's still there."

Despite it all, Nealen said he'd like to do something to assist in Iraq.

"Would I do it again?" he said. "I'd like to help out those guys in Iraq."

A new generation

America woke up to the threat of terrorism on Sept. 11, 2001. Billy Petersen of Prosser joined the army before terrorists changed America, and he's proud of that.

"I went in on my own accord, before all that happened," he said.

The 24-year-old spent more than three years in the army before his deployment to Iraq as a medic in December 2003.

Petersen said he was based at Kirkuk Airbase in northern Iraq, but he saw almost all of the country.

"The only place I didn't go was Falujah," he said.

Whether that was lucky is open to debate. Petersen saw several combat situations and dealt with wounded soldiers, and even death.

To Petersen, his sacrifice is worth it. He's seen the progress. He knows that what he's doing is right.

"They love it," said Petersen of Iraqi response to their country's liberation. "They appreciate the freedom that they're given."

That makes everything he's gone through worth it. He still jumps at loud noises. He scans people in large crowds. He even wants to take cover in open areas because of the threat of snipers he experienced.

Who can blame him?

Petersen said he genuinely thought several times he was going to die.

"It was just a matter of when," Petersen said he thought to himself.

But like all other veterans who survive and come home, he said he was lucky. "God blessed us all and let us come home alive."

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