Bob Abasta's Seabees construction battalion was flying into Da Nang, South Vietnam's giant port, at night when he heard "little pop-pop noises" and discovered his cargo plane was taking small-arms rounds. That was part of his first sobering realization of the Vietnam War -- someone he had never met, and probably never would -- was shooting at him and wanted him dead.
Olen Bartlett was getting ready to serve chow to troops on the USS Wake Island when a Japanese kamikaze pilot's plane lanced the ship's bow, and the vessel took on water. The sailor with him in the ship's galley started crying while a calmer Bartlett urged him to get down on his knees and pray.
Don Thomas remembers the bitter cold and the constant foxhole battles during his six months of combat in the Korean War. Getting shot in the left shoulder and tumbling wounded down a hill form a dense chapter in his mental diary; after three months in the hospital, he returned to the Korean front lines for four months' more fighting.
Bill Dacus was the crew chief on a Sikorsky SH-3A helicopter rescuing downed fighter pilots in Vietnam. He remembers helping unload many wounded American pilots missing arms and legs. During his Vietnam days, American troops seemed well equipped. Local veterans' groups don't see the same level of preparedness in Iraq, Dacus said.
What all these veterans have in common is that they served their country and came home, for the most part, whole. They left part of themselves in faraway war zones, and they found part of themselves there too. There may be no atheists in foxholes, but once these men became civilians again, they viewed their service through distinctly personal prisms.
While the brush of wartime fear didn't paint broad strokes on Dacus, for example, there are smudges on those near to him. He said he has a friend who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder; other military friends don't speak openly about their service experiences.
About 10 days before Pigott, 58, was wounded outside his base camp in Vietnam, the tank he was driving lurched over a land mine. He suffered a concussion, cuts, bruises and a hip injury when the lightweight Sheridan tank encountered the 1960s version of today's improvised explosive devices so common in Iraq.
Thomas was wounded on New Year's Eve, 1950, but remembers it "like it was yesterday." The 75-year-old Atwater man wrote a 40-page book about his experiences in Korea. Counting the chill factor, it was 70 degrees below zero while he was riding a tank; enduring the cold is among his strongest memories from the frigid peninsula.
Komlenich, who has lived in Merced since 1965, thought he was a goner when he faced execution for inadvertently hitting a German prison guard. He spent time in a bleak and windowless, unheated cell called a "cooler" and freely credits angels with sparing his life.
Abasta, 66, doesn't feel any differently about Iraq than he did about Vietnam. He said soldiers shouldn't talk politics, repeating the familiar line, "Loose lips sink ships." His experience in the military was a positive one, one he's glad he had.
Olen Bartlett (World War II)
Bartlett, 85, said on their fifth day in Okinawa in 1945, two Japanese suicide planes buzzed overhead. One was shot down, but the second punched a 40-by-80-foot hole in the carrier. For awhile he wasn't sure what their fate would be. The 850 sailors onboard received a "stand by to abandon ship" order, and Bartlett admits he did a considerable amount of praying.