Noted journalist and award-winning radio commentator Elmer Davis once said: "This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave."
Whether it's been the sands of Iwo Jima, the jungles of Vietnam or the mountainous terrain of Kandahar, time and time again Merced County veterans have answered the call to serve when needed.
At noontime Sunday, thousands will gather on Main Street in downtown Merced to pay honor to those who've put their lives on the line to protect the nation. (STORY CONTINUES AFTER VIDEO)
In recognition of Veterans Day, the Sun-Star interviewed several Merced County veterans from many wars. Many share commonalities, such as the emotional scars from watching fellow soldiers make the ultimate sacrifice in the combat zone. Others have stories about the difficulties of readjusting to civilian life after having witnessed traumatic events only few can comprehend.
Perhaps the greatest common denominator among all who were interviewed, however, is their profound sense of pride and patriotism. Despite the difficulties that go along with serving during wartime, they're all proud of their time in the military.
The first part of this package profiles younger veterans who've served during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The second part of the story, contained on pages four and five of the Sun-Star's Veterans Day Special Section, profiles veterans who served during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Army Staff Sgt. Juan Polino, Iraq War combat veteran, three tours of duty
The oldest of five children, Planada native Army Staff Sgt. Juan Polino wanted to serve in the military since the age of 9.
By the end of his senior year at Le Grand High, it was more than a dream to Polino, it was a ticket away from Merced County and into the world. "Four days after graduation, I was gone," he recalled.
Polino has served 12 years in the Army, many spent with 3rd Cavalry Regiment, known as the "Brave Rifles."
"I went over there (to Iraq), I was just a baby," Polino said. "I thought I was going to join the military, but I never thought I was going to go to war."
His first deployment was in March 2003, as part of the second wave of military forces entering Iraq. He served in Ramadi, Al Asad Airbase, and the notorious "Triangle of Death" south of Baghdad.
Since then, Polino said, he's known 42 military men and women who've died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among them were fellow Merced County residents Karina Lau and Cesar Granados.
Polino recalled speaking to Lau the day she died. A resident of Livingston, Lau was killed in Iraq on Nov. 2, 2003, with 15 other American soldiers when their transport helicopter was shot down in an attack west of Baghdad. She was heading home on a two-week furlough.
Polino said he was on that helicopter before it had taken off, but the seat was too small for him, so he had to get off. Someone then called out to Lau. "Hey you, you little one. You get in here."
Lau then stepped into the helicopter and sat down, and Polino stepped off. She looked at Polino and said "See you in Cali."
"I'll see you in Cali," he replied.
An hour and a half later, Polino said, Lau's helicopter was shot down. Tears still well up in his eyes when telling the story. "I couldn't go to her funeral," he said. "That hit me hard."
That's not the only brush with death Polino's had in Iraq. He's survived six blasts from IEDs (improvised explosive devices). As a result, he still suffers agonizing headaches, from which he can find little relief.