Stories of our veterans

Donald Eaton, left, rescued after being shot down in Viet Nam.
Donald Eaton, left, rescued after being shot down in Viet Nam.

Despite all the training they get ahead of time, veterans will tell you there’s no way to truly prepare anyone for war.

While many war vets were only in combat a year, it’s a year they’ll never forget — whether they have dramatic stories of narrowly escaping death or if they were more behind the lines, witnessing history.

To honor Veterans Day this Friday, The Tribune asked war veterans to send in their old photos and a brief summary of their service. After receiving nearly 100 responses, we invited a cross section of them into our studio, then paired the new photos with wartime shots the vets provided. Dozens of other veterans are featured in our online gallery.

Jim Bond, 71, Paso Robles, Vietnam | Photo »

A dentist before he enlisted, Bond would often provide Vietnamese villagers around Da Nang with free dental work and minor surgical procedures when he wasn’t helping fellow Marines. On the first day of the Tet Offensive in 1968, it would be Bond who would need surgery. After an AK-47 bullet tore through his flack jacket, the Marine dentist/corpsman lay wounded on the ground when an enemy soldier threw a grenade into his torso. Bond smothered the grenade, but the resulting injuries required a 4-month hospital stay. He was later awarded the Navy Commendation Medal with Combat.

Ruth Gwin, 91, Arroyo Grande, WWII and Korean War | Photo »

On her 22nd birthday – Dec. 7, 1941 – Gwin learned that America had been attacked by the Japanese. Feeling the need to help her country, the legal secretary joined the newly created Woman’s Army Corps, becoming one of the first few hundred women to enlist as a private. Working as a secretary to military intelligence at the American Embassy, she arrived in London amid the destruction of deadly German air raids. Later she joined the Air Force Reserve and was called to duty in the Korean War.

Allen Haile, 81, San Luis Obispo, Vietnam | Photo »

In 1953, while studying architectural engineering at Penn State, Haile enlisted in the Air Force, where he soon found himself flying rescue missions in Libya. A forward air controller, navigating targets and around enemy fire, he flew 134 combat missions in Vietnam, sometimes smelling the gun powder of enemy fire while in the belly of a jet. During his 20 years in the service, he was awarded seven air medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross, earned three masters degrees and a doctorate and later became the dean of Cal Poly’s business school.

Dennis Javens, 64, Atascadero, Vietnam | Photo »

Five years after the 1960 plane crash that killed 16 Cal Poly players, Cal Poly football teams still traveled to games solely by bus. But Javens, a defensive safety on the team from 1965-67, would soon find himself spending five hours a day in the air. After joining the ROTC while at Cal Poly, Javens was commissioned to active duty in 1969, eventually becoming a helicopter pilot. While in Vietnam, from 1971 to 1972, Javens logged in 2,200 hours of flight time. Later he became a teacher and then a sales representative in the medical device industry.

George Enriquez, 61, Atascadero, Vietnam, Iraq | Photo »

Enriquez has been shot at in two different wars, more than 30 years apart. As a member of the 4th Infantry, Enriquez performed sniper and reconnaissance duties near the border of Laos and Cambodia in 1969. And , not long after the 9/11 attacks, he felt obligated to sign up for the Army Reserve. His reserve unit was among the first ground troops to enter Baghdad, delivering fuel for other vehicles, after the shock and awe bombings.

Tom Mendoza, 40, Arroyo Grande, Desert Storm | Photo »

Mendoza was a college student working as a bartender part-time when the Army Reserve called him to active duty in 1990. His 2,500-member unit was sent to Saudi Arabia before the coalition forces marched into Iraq. Later, the unit was sent to Kuwait as well. In 1992, Mendoza was named Reserve Soldier of the Year for the Western Region.

CJ Mriscin, 43, Arroyo Grande, Iraq | Photo »

Having enlisted at 17, Mriscin retired from the Army after 22 years of service in 2008. In Iraq, she was part of a unit that performed humanitarian missions in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town, helping to create a voting system, rebuilding generators and bringing in school books. In 2004, she was relocating troops when her convoy was hit by an IED built into a cell phone. One soldier was killed, and Mriscin, who was thrown and injured in the explosion, helped rescue four others, earning her a Bronze Star.

Don Eaton, 74, Paso Robles, Vietnam | Photo »

As former Washington Post reporter George C. Wilson described in the intro of his book “Flying the Edge,” Eaton was dramatically shot down and later rescued in Southeast Asia during a reconnaissance mission in 1965. After his rescue, the bombardier/navigator — already a veteran of 66 combat missions, would fly 56 more. In 1994, he retired from the Navy as a rear admiral after 36 years of service and went on to teach at the Naval Post Graduate School until 2009.

Roger Garcia, 64, Santa Maria, Vietnam | Photo »

While he was born and raised in San Luis Obispo, Garcia, now a retired mail carrier, was actually in Mexico City, visiting an uncle, when he received his draft notice. He could have easily stayed in Mexico, but he returned to the States and eventually became a rifleman in the Army. Garcia recalls the Tet Offensive being like a movie – beginning with what sounded like fireworks turning to gunfire and culminating with rocket fire. Eventually, he got out of Saigon on top of a tank and was later given an Army Commendation medal.

David Kenyon, 60, Paso Robles, Vietnam | Photo »

The oldest of six children, Kenyon volunteered for the draft, hoping to get GI Bill money to pay for his schooling. After joining the 101st Airborne, 327th infantry, he found himself carrying an M-60 machine gun through the jungle, performing missions along the Ho Chi Min trail from 1971 to 1972. After his return, he used the GI Bill to earn a degree in business administration from Cal Poly.

Charles Dills, 89, San Luis Obispo, World War II | Photo »

An orphan at 14, Dills grew up with a passion for flying. As a fighter pilot during the war, he flew 94 missions in three different planes, which proved to be dangerous work: Dills went overseas with 45 guys, but only 17 of them returned alive. By his last mission, in 1944, he’d been shot at numerous times and his weight had dipped to just over 105 pounds. The grandson of a Civil War vet, Dills returned home and became a chemistry professor at Cal Poly, where he worked 27 years before retiring.

Bob Bowe, 85, Cambria, World War II | Photo »

Just 18, Bowe — still a high school student — was frightened and seasick as he sailed the rough seas to Italy, where he would experience the final battles of war. A member of the 84th Chemical Mortar Battalion during the war, Bowe, who earned nine medals, re-enlisted for three more years of Army service afterward, finishing in 1948. With education gained from the GI Bill, he later became a high school physics and electronics teacher.

Anthony Vause, 87, Arroyo Grande, World War II | Photo »

Born in England, Vause’s family moved to British Columbia when he was a child. Before enlisting in the military, Vause inspected parts for Boeing Aircraft, which helped prepare him for a stint with the Royal Canadian Air Force, from 1943-1945. Stationed in Stranraer, Scotland, the navigator was assigned to the Advanced Flying Unit, spending much of his time in the war in England and Scotland.

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