Moving with his family in 1951 from Oregon, Gary lived on South Willow in Sugar Creek and attended Fairmount Elementary School, graduating from Van Horn High School in 1963.

Moving with his family in 1951 from Oregon, Gary lived on South Willow in Sugar Creek and attended Fairmount Elementary School, graduating from Van Horn High School in 1963.

In his senior year of school a recruitment officer came to the school to talk about the Marines, and Gary signed up for the next four years of his life. He was able to graduate and left in July for his first training in San Diego. He remembers thinking that boot camp was harassment from morning to night, and he learned quickly to keep his mouth shut.

When he was told they may be going to Vietnam, like most of us at that time, he didn’t even know where that was. A ship took him to Okinawa for two to three  months of more training, then home for a little R&R, and off to this Vietnam place. His first sight of Vietnam was white sandy beaches where they were dropped off in Da Nang, one week there and into a plane to be dropped into rice paddies and the jungle with snipers firing at them.

The reality of Vietnam struck hard with living in a foxhole, feeling the bullets of snipers whizzing by too closely, and no water to drink in 130-degree weather.  Remember all this, Gary says he sure feels the pain the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are going through with the high temperatures, bugs and terrain.

Gary, along with the other first 30,000 to 40,000 troops sent into Vietnam, was in the first all-American major battle called Operation Starlite. This was the worst five days in Gary’s life with 662 enemy killed, and 34 American men killed. The battle took place in 130-degree weather, Gary carried a 28-pound machine gun in full heavy gear, and to make matters even worse – no drinking water.

After three days of battle and weary-worn with fatigue Gary gave up and no longer cared if he lived or died. He was ready to be hit and the battle over. However, that wasn’t going to happen. The battle was won and the Marines were never in another major battle of that magnitude in Vietnam.

Another battle he was in, named Operation Harvest Moon, was horrific, but smaller in comparison to Starlite. Gary says that war is a miserable thing and being in combat is unforgettable. He remembers that General Westmoreland wanted a high body count, but the Marines were a troop that wanted to help the villagers with their security and medical assistance in order for them to help the troops in return. So the medics did as much as they could in the short time they had to help win the confidence of the Vietnamese people.

Gary told story after story about his year of combat, which is available for the public to view in Veterans Hall in the Truman Memorial Building. What brought his Vietnam days to an end is an injury that took place when he was sitting on a blasting cap and it exploded.

A helicopter flew him to Da Nang Field Hospital where he discovered that morphine can be a wonderful thing when you are in excruciating pain. The down side of the morphine was that being sedated for nine days caused memory lapses which still occur to this day. He had a hole large enough to put a fist into.

Gary was soon sent back to California then to South Carolina for more treatment and for the first time knew what it felt like to be really, really lucky when the doctor told him he could easily have been paralyzed from the blast.

After his four years were over Gary carried with him the scars from war. The scars stay with you when you spend 24 hours of every day scared a booby trap or bouncing mine will get you; scared that the water you just drank could kill you; that at any time on any day you could die. He saw kids throwing grenades and grandmas shooting AK47’s. It was a constant high state of awareness that these men lived in, and Gary stated that those close encounters (he had a thousand) makes a man believe in God. He has seen things that haunt him to this day and has the loss of hearing in his left ear to live with.

Once home, Gary worked at Union Station for two years, then for the Santa Fe Railroad the next 37 years. He is now retired and volunteers much of his time at the VA Hospital, the Independence Old Depot, and the 1859 Jail.

Several years ago he attended the Branson Veterans Week and met a man who had also been in Operation Starlite. They both feel that they could have been killed at any time and to them it is still unknown why they survived.

Gary has one son, and his wife of 13 years works at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City. They call Independence home.

Gary’s military history may be viewed in Veterans Hall in the Independence Parks and Recreation Truman Memorial Building, 416 W. Maple.

This is part of a weekly feature on local veterans submitted  by Helen Matson, volunteer program director for the city of Independence