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World War II vet Aubrey Thomas of Moorhead will be 90 years old on Saturday. Dave Wallis / The Forum

'I'd gladly do it again': US veterans of six wars share common love of country, sense of duty

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'I'd gladly do it again': US veterans of six wars share common love of country, sense of duty
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FARGO - It's been 20 years since the Gulf War, but Air Force Master Sgt. David Smith keeps a sobering reminder of his role in the campaign stored in a circular cookie tin.


Inside are scores of arming pins, many with their red plastic warning ribbons, pulled from the cluster bombs and Maverick missiles he loaded on F-16s he armed as part of the massive, relentless bombing that destroyed Saddam Hussein's army and freed Kuwait from Iraqi rule.

"I know we dropped thousands of them (bombs). This is just me," the North Dakota Air National Guard member said.

"It meant something to me" to keep the pins, he said. And though he knows those bombs caused a great deal of destruction, he also knows "it was for the best."

Smith is one of many millions of American soldiers, airmen and sailors who have sacrificed chunks of their lives and bear scars - physical and psychological - from months, sometimes years in war zones.

For this Veterans Day, The Forum asked area veterans from the nation's last six wars - the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the Gulf War, the Vietnam War, the Korean War and World War II - to share their stories.

'We were ready'

Smith was a young airman with a new wife and baby in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War.

The newly minted family man had to learn how to arm the F-16s used by his new unit, the 363rd Tactical Fighter Wing, which he joined in the United Arab Emirates. Saddam's army was the third largest in the world.

"We thought this would be a pretty serious war," Smith said.

In his mind's eye, he still sees and hears the "elephant walks," the ongoing lines of aircraft waiting to take off, one after another, lighting their afterburners as they flew off.

He was surprised how quick the war was.

"The sheer number of bombs we were dropping - it was devastating," Smith said of the cluster bombs used on troops and Maverick missiles used on tanks. "I knew we were taking them out like crazy."

He still has some sleepless nights. And like other Gulf War vets, he suffers ills that can't be pinned down. But he's gratified that people thank him for his service.

"We do sacrifice a lot. This is the only life that I know," he said. "My father's in the military. My son's in the military. My brother's in the military. I don't know if there's anything else I could do ... to service my country.

"It's the way I was raised. ... I'd gladly do it again. I'm doing it today," he said of his 26 years in the service.

'A squad leader's war'

Sgt. 1st Class Corey Askin has served two tours in Afghanistan and also a tour as a peacekeeper in Kosovo.

The Moorhead man served in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007 with A Battery of the North Dakota National Guard's 1-188th Air Defense Artillery out of Bismarck.

But rather than serve in their air defense role, they acted as mounted infantry, patrolling Afghanistan's border with Pakistan in Khost Province and Spin Buldak, with short stints in Kandahar and at Bagram Air Base, Askin said.

"I was a squad leader. Afghanistan is called a squad leader's war. It's fought on that level," he said.

They'd take three or four vehicle gun teams out for three- or four-day missions on their own in the mountains.

"What I remember the most is the first mission you pushed out in the middle of the night. And you've got all your high-tech equipment and your maps and your course trackers, and we still felt lost. It's one of those feelings where it's pitch dark, and you know they're there, and you don't know where you're at, but they do," he said.

"But then, as the weeks and months went on, it got to the point where we knew the area just as well as they did. And that was quite a good feeling," he said.

Altogether, four soldiers he fought alongside lost their lives, and another friend was badly wounded in an improved explosive attack. The driver and gunner in that vehicle were both killed.

At one time, he pooh-poohed the effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Then the emotional impact caught up with him 18 months ago.

"I saw some pretty horrible stuff. It turned on me pretty quickly," Askin said.

'Search and destroy'

Matt Mitzel, a North Dakota National Guard officer candidate, served two tours in Iraq.

His first deployment was in 2003, just after he had gotten out of the full-duty U.S. Army. He was with the Guard's 957th Multi-Role Bridge Co. out of Bismarck. They worked just north of Baghdad, building bridges to support other units.

His second tour in 2005 was a lot hairier.

It was with Company A of the state Guard's 164th Engineering Battalion. He was a sergeant first class in charge of a section that cleared roads of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in the Sunni Triangle. It was a search-and-destroy mission, he said.

"For every IED we found, the statistics were that we saved 1.4 lives. And our platoon found 133," Mitzel said. "So, do the math - maybe 200 soldiers we saved, compared to the one soldier we lost."

That soldier was one of his gunners, Spc. Michael Hermanson of Fargo, killed by a rocket-propelled grenade in May 2006 in an attack on his vehicle.

The people of Iraq were appreciative, Mitzel said.

"When you go to a farmer, and he thanks God that you're there to protect him, all the other politics falls to the wayside," he said.

'What am I into now?'

Billy Gray has a lot of memories from his years in the Air Force, and some of them still bring a tear to his eyes.

The south Fargo man talks of his 23-year career, split in half by an 18-month tour in Vietnam at the height of the war.

Born in Covington, Tenn., 77 years ago today, he carries a deep Southern drawl telling of how he and a buddy joined the Air Force in 1954 because they didn't want to be drafted to serve in the Army.

He served at air bases in Germany and France, repairing aircraft instruments and doing in-flight diagnostics. He later learned how to schedule fuel and bomb loads for wartime duty.

In 1966, he got orders to move to Okinawa.

"As soon as you got on the plane, you wondered if you were ever going to get back," Gray said.

From there, he was ordered to a "temporary duty station" - Vietnam - for an 18-month tour at Cam Rahn Bay.

"You worried constantly over there," Gray said. "They (the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong) were constantly trying to blow you out of the sky or blow up your bases," he said.

He worked six days a week. On his day off, he often volunteered for what was called the "vegetable run." A plane would drop off fresh vegetables at another base and then load salvageable equipment. At the next base, the salvage might be unloaded and the steel-casketed remains of the dead picked up.

"Everything was torn up, blown up or dead," Gray said. "The first time I ever saw an airplane full of dead bodies, I thought, 'What am I into now?' "

"We were shot at, but we were never hit," Gray said of his flights. But one time, their pilot was forced to fly low through some valleys.

"I hope Charlie (the enemy) isn't hungry today," Gray remembered him saying. "They were all over those mountains like a bunch of little fleas."

Gray lost acquaintances in Vietnam, but his biggest loss came in a mercy mission in 1956 in Europe.

Three C-119 "Flying Boxcar" cargo aircraft had gone up with troops and supplies. One pilot asked another pilot to fly close to him to look at an oil leak. But turbulence caused them to slam into each other and both crashed, killing about 30 people, many of whom Gray knew, he said, a tear sliding from his eye.

'Better to be lucky ...'

Aubrey Thomas was the 20-year-old son of a farmer from Kragnes Township, Minn., when he was drafted into the Army in 1941 to fight in World War II.

After going through armored school at Fort Knox, Ky., he ended up fighting through North Africa, Italy, France and then Germany.

"I was always near the front. We cleared roads and mine fields," the 89-year-old Moorhead man said.

In North Africa, he drove a Sherman tank equipped with a mine flail. In Italy, he became the company's jeep driver.

On the Anzio beachhead, "We (were) shelled every day. If you could hear a shell, you knew it wouldn't come close," he said.

He was wounded in France on Dec. 5, 1944, when he and a buddy returned to a roadblock to fetch a bulldozer tank. A soldier stepped on a mine near their jeep, and shrapnel ripped into his right cheek. He also had to have bits of glass from the jeep's windshield removed from his eyes and nose.

He later earned a Silver Star medal for using a 10-ton wrecker to clear a railway tunnel of rail cars loaded with explosives.

He mustered out in October 1945 and returned to the family farm.

"Someone up there was looking out for me," Thomas told the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. "I guess my tale proves that it's better to be lucky than smart."

A wake-up call

Earl Felland, 80, spent his tour of duty during the Korean War far offshore, working as an interior communications electrician third class on the aircraft carrier USS Boxer.

He was 20 when he enlisted in the Navy, after growing up in Turtle Lake, N.D.

The Boxer cruised off the Korean coast in 1952 and 1953, sending its complement of F4U Corsairs, Douglas Skyraiders and early jets, FH-1 Phantoms and F2H Banshees at targets on the mainland.

"You'd see planes come back, and you wonder how they ever got back on board ship," Felland said.

Even though he and his fellow sailors weren't on the front lines, there was still danger. One day in early August 1952, armorers were trying to quickly turn around planes for more sorties. But they were trying to arm aircraft on the hanger deck.

It became a disaster when an explosion of an F9F Panther touched off fuel and ammunition, Felland said. Nine men died, dozens suffered smoke inhalation, and another 63 had to be pulled from the sea.

"It sort of wakes you up," Felland said, counting himself fortunate to not have lost any friends.

"Ours was more or less the forgotten war. It was a police action. We weren't mistreated (and ostracized like Vietnam vets). We went there and got back, and that was it," he said. "We did what we had to do and came back again."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583