A self-described "devil" while growing up in his native Whitman, Mass., longtime Detroit Lakes resident George Peters grew up to become a career soldier and 4-time Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient.

But his teenage exploits with fellow Cape Cod resident Charles "Sonny" Reynolds nearly landed him in reform school rather than the U.S. Army.

"We (himself and Reynolds) were going to take a dump truck full of fish from in front of the local diner," Peters said. "I got elected to drive, though I didn't know how."

The truck was already running when Peters climbed into the cab and attempted to put it in gear — unfortunately, the lever that he pulled was for dumping the truck's load rather than putting it in gear.

"I dumped about 16 tons of fish out into the street," Peters recalled with a laugh.

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What happened next wasn't nearly so humorous, however.

"I went to juvenile court, and the judge had a meeting with me and my father," he said. "I had two choices. I could go to reform school, or join the military."

It was his dad who informed Peters that he would be joining the U.S. Army — despite the fact that he was still 16, and the Army required that new recruits had to be at least 17 years of age or above.

"When my dad talked, I listened ... he thought it would be good discipline for me," Peters said, so when his application went through, stating that he had just turned 17, he didn't correct the misinformation — and suddenly, he found himself on his way to basic training.

Peters reflected on his career of service recently, in the days before Patriot Day, the commemoration of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

After getting through basic, Peters went on to receive training as an Army Ranger, as well as attending jump school to become a paratrooper. Three years later, he went to Fort Bragg, N.C., to receive special forces training, and became a Green Beret.

"I chose the wildest, most crazy path you could take," he said wryly. And of course, that meant he ended up on the front lines in Korea.

It was during his initial combat stint there, during the early 1950s, that Peters was wounded for the first time.

"I took a fragment of a canon round under the chin that went out the back of my head," he said. "I spent 18 months at Walter Reed (National Military Medical Center)."

As he was going through rehabilitation at Walter Reed, his parents would make the 300-mile drive from Cape Cod to Washington, D.C., every weekend in order to support him through his recovery.

"My mom would bring me fresh bread and homemade food every week," he recalled. "I called it my 'goodie bag.'"

When he was recovered, Peters said, "I went back to soldiering."

In all, Peters would serve a total of 24 years with the military, though he only collected a pension for the last 23.

"They would only give me credit for 23 years," Peters said, adding that they considered his first year of service to be "fraudulent" because he was legally underage.

In addition to serving three tours in Vietnam, where he earned three additional Purple Hearts as well as four Bronze Stars, Peters also did a stint in West Berlin, Germany, during the early 1970s.

"I went through Checkpoint Charlie about 200 times," he said, referring to the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War (1947-91).

It's his years in Vietnam that still haunt him most, Peters admits, although the flashbacks are considerably less frequent than they were during his early years back in the U.S.

"I spent a total of 55 months — about six years — in combat, between Korea and Vietnam," Peters said. "That's a pretty hefty chunk of combat, and I paid for it pretty bad ... some of it has stayed with me, though the VA has done a good job of helping me with that.

"Back when Jan (his wife) and I first got married, I had a lot of nightmares," he continued. "I don't think you can ever completely get away from (the memories of) seeing kids dying ... the flashbacks."

One of the memories that recently came back to haunt him, Peters added, is all the times he had to zip up body bags for his fellow soldiers who had been killed in combat.

"I zipped up close to 300 body bags — they were all kids, 18 to 20 years old," he said. "I'll see those faces until the day I die. In all, there were 58,000 kids (killed in combat)... that's the figure that will never leave me."

Conversely, Peters said, one of his "most prized memories" from his years in the Army came about when he was briefly assigned to a "knock squad" — the servicemen charged with knocking on doors to deliver the news to soldiers' next-of-kin that their loved ones are missing or have been killed in action.

"My first assignment was at Springfield, Massachusetts," he said. "I had to notify a mom and dad that their son was missing in action. They were an old Irish couple. It was certainly harder on them than me, but it was a tough job."

This story had a happy ending, however: Three weeks later, Peters was called to go back to the couple's home and deliver the news that their son had been found — alive and well.

"That was just pure joy for me," he said — but not long after that, Peters added, he asked to be reassigned, because next-of-kin notifications were just too tough for him. "It wasn't an appropriate assignment for me."

When he and Jan were married in 1983, they went to Washington, D.C., for their honeymoon — a trip that included a visit to the Vietnam Memorial Wall.

There's a picture on the wall of their Floyd Lake cottage showing Peters standing in front of the Wall, with his head bowed.

"I picked out several names of the kids I knew," he said, adding that it was an emotional visit for him.

George Peters displays the tag on his Quilt of Valor that shows when and by whom he was presented with the honor. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)
George Peters displays the tag on his Quilt of Valor that shows when and by whom he was presented with the honor. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)(Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)

Peters added that he thinks of all combat veterans, past and present, as heroes — but especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country, and were sent back home in coffins.

"I have a friend in Fargo who was a medic in Vietnam," Peters said. "A while back he wrote a letter to the editor of the Forum (of Fargo-Moorhead)."

In that letter, titled "The silence of our elected officials is deafening," Dana Farnham wrote about the silence of U.S. elected officials regarding President Trump's treatment of the late Sen. John McCain.

"It was a superb letter," said Peters, noting that he believed Farnham's ire in calling out North Dakota legislators Sen. John Hoeven, Rep. Kelly Armstrong, Sen. Kevin Cramer and Gov. Doug Burgum for their lack of response to Trump's remarks belittling McCain, a decorated war hero and former Vietnam prisoner of war to be entirely justified.

"He (Farnham) outlined how he held many of these kids as they died, calling out for their moms," Peters said. "That's the kind of things you see when you're in combat."

Though he voted for Trump, Peters added, he has been appalled by some of the things that have come out of the president's mouth with regard to McCain and other military servicemen and women.

"I'm proud of my service, and I'm extremely proud of my country," he said. "I think that I was a good soldier.

"I still carry hostility for the reception we had when we got home," Peters said of the widespread anger toward himself and his fellow Vietnam vets after they were sent home, adding that it "was not a pleasant experience."

"None of us made the decision to go to Vietnam," he said. "That (decision) was made politically."

Once they were sent to the front lines to fight, he added, they were forced to "kill or be killed. You didn't have any other option."

About a month ago, Peters and three of his fellow local veterans were gifted with Quilts of Valor that had been created by four Becker County 4-H members, who presented them with the quilts during the Becker County Fair on Saturday, Aug. 10. His quilt was made by Maya Schlauderaff.

The other three quilts, created by 4-H'ers Alyssa Mitchell, Alydia Mitchell and Keira Schlauderaff, were presented to veterans Justin Bristlin, Harold Schossow and Rawleigh McCollum, respectively.

Though he jokes that his wife Jan has taken over possession of his QOV quilt, Peters remains quite touched by the gesture.

"I thought that was so neat," he said, adding that the quilt itself was "just beautiful."