Salute to our vets
This Saturday is Veterans Day. To honor the sacrifice of the nation's 25 million living veterans and celebrate their service, the Daily News asked several New Yorkers who have worn the uniform in times of war to tell their stories.
Fighting for innocents
When Peter Kim signed the papers making him a Marine Corps reservist in 1999, his mother looked on and shook her head.
An immigrant from South Korea, Kim, 26, was expected to go to college, not the battlefield.
"They move here so their children don't have to serve in the military, and here I am, volunteering to serve," said the New Hyde Park, L.I. native. "But it was something I needed. ...This was a way to pay for school and get some inner discipline I desired. It helped me grow a lot."
He was called to active duty in 2003, four years after he enlisted, and was raring to go even though he had a job and was taking classes at a junior college.
"9/11 occurred right in my backyard," said Kim. "I saw the devastation and was itching to do something."
Based out of Camp Fallujah, he served in Iraq for seven months in 2004. The experience changed his thinking about why the U.S. was fighting.
"You realize you're there for the people. This barefooted little kid running up wanting something, anything, I realized the reason why we fight is for those innocent little ones," he said.
Now an economics student at Columbia University, Kim aspires to a career in politics so he can use his experience overseas to help guide U.S. policy. "I can be the voice for the guys on the ground. I want to help shape how we do things," he said. "What could we have done differently? That's the question that comes up in my mind."
Service is a duty
Vince McGowan returned to Manhattan from Vietnam in 1968 after spending two years as a platoon sergeant in the Marines. The homecoming was extremely demoralizing.
"It was horrible the way we were treated. Wearing a uniform would identify you, and cause ridicule and scorn," McGowan, now 60, recalled.
Angry that Vietnam vets were blamed for political decisions they didn't make, he founded the United War Veterans Council, which stages the Veterans Day Parade and honors a soldier's commitment "to follow orders."
"Service should be looked at as a responsibility of citizenship," said McGowan, a life-long resident of the upper West Side.
"When you volunteer to serve, it isn't a democratically operated military. You're committed to follow orders. ...If they've got any gripes, take them up with elected officials."
"On the day that the country honors veterans, take time out of your life to help a vet," he added. "If you can't buy one a drink at a local bar, you can support the Wounded Warriors program or other agencies the community has had to create itself because the nation has been less than grateful in recognizing service."
"It's getting better, but we've got a long way to go."
He couldn't wait to head overseas
Joseph (Pepi) Di Geronimo and his pals in East Harlem were itching to join the Army as World War II escalated. But they had to wait - then wait some more.
"In those days, your parents would've had a heart attack if you volunteered," Di Geronimo, now 82, told the Daily News. "If you were drafted, they were proud of you."
Di Geronimo, the son of Italian immigrants, heard from his friends on the draft board that he was slated to get called to service in June. But after begging them to push up the date, he was drafted in March 1943.
"That's like enlisting," Di Geronimo recalled proudly.
The brash 20-year-old quickly worked his way up to sergeant. But it wasn't until two years later, when he was sent to the Philippines, that he finally got his wish to go overseas.
"In Europe, you had a chance you'd go to Paris or Naples or Rome and dance with some beautiful-looking girl," said Di Geronimo, who lives in Jackson Heights, Queens.
"In the Philippines, we didn't have that. It was bombed out and there were still civilians in the rubble. There was no good time to be had there. There was a lot of chaos, sickness, disease.
"We want people to remember - and people want to remember - the boys who went out there to keep our country safe."
His thoughts turning to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Di Geronimo said, "Today, it's a different world; it's a different war. There's no flags, no uniforms. [The enemy] could be a man, a woman, a girl, a boy, a car, a motorcycle passing by. "This could be the end of civilization if something's not done about it. War is horrible but necessary."
Bitter lessons from North Korea still linger
When Ernest Benson's draft number came up in the summer of 1951, he was severely dismayed.
Being shipped off to the Korean War meant that the then 20-year-old was forced to interrupt his life on Long Island and head off to an area of the world he knew nothing about.
"There was the saying that we were being sent to a land that we never heard of to defend a people that we never knew," said Benson, now 76. "And it turned out to be so true."
The field sergeant learned very quickly that North Korea was not a forgiving place.
On his numerous forays into enemy territory, Benson was shot at, forced to dive for cover from mortar shells and witnessed scenes of destruction too gruesome to describe. And then there was the weather.
"It was the coldest winter ever to come through Siberia," said Benson, who can barely walk because of the frostbite that damaged both his feet during battle.
When he returned to his hometown of Floral Park after 14 months overseas, he found himself unable to cope with civilian life.
"No one goes through war and comes back the same person," Benson said. "Once you shed blood, your whole soul feels different."
He said he eventually overcame his social problems and worked a satisfying career as an engineer. But he is constantly reminded of his sacrifices in Asia. "Korean people come up to me all the time, and say, 'Thank you for saving our country,'" he said. "I just get so choked up."
Originally published on November 5, 2006
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