Veterans remember the sacrifices of war, and today we remember them

Marvin Veronee

Paul Zoeller/Special to The Post and Courier

Paul Zoeller/Special to The Post and Courier

Anthony Forlano, a Marine during Vietnam (from left), William Gilden, who served in the Air Force during the Cold War, and Marvin Veronee, who served in the Navy during World War II, visited the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Yorktown on Thursday at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant.

Most people can't imagine the things veterans have seen.

They have slept in the mud, with no assurance that they will live to see the dawn.

They have lost limbs in explosions of dirt and rock while trudging through hostile third-world villages.

They have spent countless nights on an endless sea, waiting for the enemy to appear on the horizon.

Whether they were in the infantry or in the air, U.S. military personnel have endured great physical and emotional stress fighting for this country.

And today they are honored for it.

Post and Courier reporter Schuyler Kropf introduces us to some Lowcountry veterans, men who have served from the Cold War to the Gulf War, from World War II to Afghanistan. Their stories offer a brief glimpse into just what it means to celebrate Veterans Day.

Sea Island native Marvin Veronee started his Navy career as a "90-day wonder." That's the assembly-line term given to anyone who quickly went from state-side novice to sea-ready ensign during World War II.

Stationed in Hawaii, it soon became clear what the Navy gunfire director was training for. Even the local newspapers were openly talking about island maneuvers mimicking the distant Pacific rock known as Iwo Jima.

Weeks later, Veronee and thousands of others landed on the island's black ash. "I was lucky because there was a lull," he said. The lull didn't last long. Veronee would be near some of the fiercest fighting of World War II.

His main duty was directing "starshell" bursts fired at night by ships offshore. The shots would light up the dark with bright shining flares that kept the Japanese away, allowing front-line Marines a few hours of sleep. "We were always afraid of Banzai attacks," he said.

Living on the island, Veronee said his "world was very small," consisting of a foxhole where he would radio ships offshore. Occasionally he would catch glimpses of the enemy's heads or simply as "shadows" moving around. "I landed the first day; I left the last," he said.

At 88, Veronee can remember when Veterans Day was officially known as Armistice Day, and survivors of World War I were the original heroes. Today, he remembers the holiday because "you get a sense of the sacrifice."

In 1951, William Gilden took his brother's advice and joined the Air Force. "Don't join the Army, you'll be sleeping in foxholes," he told him. While the foxholes never materialized, exposure to the brutal elements did.

Gilden, 81, found himself assigned to the frigid Alaska Air Command, where the main mission was to monitor the Soviet Union's air incursions across the Bering Sea.

He remembers Alaska as being bitterly cold. But even worse was the psychological toll that duty in the far off north territory took on men assigned there. Loneliness, isolation, divorces and depression struck in droves, especially for those in the most distant assignments.

Spending time on listening and radar-station watches meant hours and days of boredom just waiting for the Soviets to do something, he said. Otherwise, the duty was important and hazardous.

Whenever Russian planes made test runs over U.S. airspace, messages were relayed to the Pentagon within seconds and response planes were scrambled. Meanwhile, some men lost their lives to get messages out, including some who fell from rope-secured trails to fog-shrouded outposts in the high mountains.

Gilden said he never saw direct combat, but that classmates he knew died in the service of their country, while family members suffered too. Veterans Day means "remembering and appreciating the sacrifices these guys made," he said.

Anthony Forlano, 71, joined the Marine Corps out of college knowing full well that he would be in the toughest branch of the armed forces. "I didn't want to sleep on clean sheets. I wanted to sleep in a foxhole," he said.

Commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1962, within three years he found himself among the thousands of troops joining the early U.S. buildup in Vietnam.

Forlano's first impression of Southeast Asia was the weather -- the stifling heat and humidity that seemed to weigh everybody down. But he also thought of the country as beautiful and probably would make a good vacation destination one day.

After he made it "in-country," Forlano's routine became a series of helicopter flights over the jungle looking for the enemy, or setting up ambushes.

Often there were hours of waiting, punctuated by only brief interactions with the enemy. Firefights might last "only 10 or 15 minutes," but to get in position meant "you're up all night, having to be awake and alert."

Decades later, Forlano, of Mount Pleasant, said his takeaway from his war experience goes beyond the big picture of America in Vietnam. What counts to him is the "Band of Brothers" code: Men who shed blood together remain eternally tied.

"You're fighting because you're there," he said, "and you have to protect the people you are with to do a job." Forlano lost five good friends in the war. On Nov. 11, "I always remember my friends."

DeNoris Mickle has seen war from the back of a cargo jet making an air drop, strapped to the side of a whirring helicopter and down on the ground where the bullets are flying.

The Air Force tech sergeant is a combat cameraman with the 1st Combat Command Squadron stationed at Charleston Air Force Base. While he is trained to use a weapon, his main task is to shoot still photographs of the action, whatever course it takes.

Mickle, 37, of Charleston, has shot film in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has photographed the mundane and the violent, such as the time in a small town in Iraq during Ramadan. The locals began to celebrate by shooting guns in the air. "Next thing you know, we're hearing a lot of cracks," he said.

Within moments, he and the soldiers around him were under concentrated fire. Picking up his camera instead of a gun is always an easy choice during those times. "If I didn't document it, it never happened," he said.

The role of the U.S. combat cameraman has grown greatly in the past 70 years. From Iwo Jima to Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, there are always events the military wants to record. Fifty years from now, "somebody might be looking at an image that I have taken," Mickle said.

On this Veterans Day Mickle remembers his grandfather, who retired from the Charleston Naval Shipyard, and his father, who was in the Marines.

Tech Sgt. Michael Williams remembers when he took the step and the explosion was triggered, the world around him moved in "slo-mo."

On Aug. 2, 2009, the Air Force explosive ordnance expert was near the tiny Afghanistan village of Mushan, assigned with blowing up a land mine. The goal that steamy day was to make local travel safe for civilians ahead of the country's elections.

But as Williams detonated one device, he took a step back, triggering another land mine. In the next instant, the bottom half of his left leg was taken away in a shower of rock and smoke. Moments later a bad situation became worse when insurgent bullets and rocket-propelled grenades starting coming in. He gathered his wits and survived the attack, even sending a radio message on what had happened.

Williams, 38, of Summerville, retired from the Air Force in August. But he often thinks about what those still in Afghanistan are facing. Something as simple as a news report from overseas can take him back, rekindling memories. "If I hear something about somebody being hurt, I think about it," he said.

Williams said that while he sees the purpose of Veterans Day as a national remembrance, he thinks about the soldiers still overseas constantly, not just once a year. Today, Williams is still pursuing regular physical therapy.

Veterans Day originated as "Armistice Day" on Nov. 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution in 1926 for an annual observance, and Nov. 11 became a national holiday beginning in 1938, later becoming Veterans Day.

21.8 million: The number of military veterans in the United States in 2010.

1.6 million: The number of female veterans in 2010.

2.4 million: The number of black veterans in 2010. Additionally, 1.2 million veterans were Hispanic.

9 million: The number of veterans 65 and older in 2010. At the other end of the age spectrum, 1.7 million were younger than 35.

7.6 million: Number of Vietnam-era veterans in 2010. Thirty-five percent of all living veterans served during this time (1964-1975). In addition, 4.8 million served during the Gulf War (representing service from Aug. 2, 1990, to present); 2.1 million in World War II (1941-1945); 2.6 million in the Korean War (1950-1953); and 5.5 million in peacetime only.

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