Featured Veteran: Mazin Mozan

During the Battle of Baqubah Reunion last month, Stacy Pearsall reunited with Mazin Mozan. Ten years ago, Mozan was an Iraqi civilian, and one of the many translators Pearsall worked with during her service. Mozan was gracious to share his story with us.

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When asked what his favorite memory was while he was in the service, Mozan had several. “The day I raised my right hand and recited the oath to enlist in the United States Army is a feeling I will never forget. Also my graduation day from basic training was another day where I felt happiness that I never felt before. The last one is the day I was naturalized to become a U.S. citizen.”

Mozan takes us back to his youth. He described his family as hard working and encouraging, despite hard times. He explains, “I was born on 31 July 1982 in an average Iraqi family that believed in education and professional careers more than anything else. My parents are teachers who always kept us focused on our education and our goals to become successful citizens in the future. My father struggled to provide for us despite being a teacher, because he was known for disagreeing with Saddam Hussein’s ideology and the way his regime controlled the nation. Therefor they never let my father hold a decent job.”

During Mozan’s teen years, he worked many grueling, hard labor jobs such as assembly line and construction work to help his family. This wasn’t the only thing he was doing while providing extra money.

“I worked during my five years of Veterinary school and paid for my college as well as my sister’s school,” Mozan said. “She studied Biology.”

He was already fluent in English and Arabic by this time. And the days leading to the 2003 Iraq War, the Iraqis were nervous. “[We] didn’t know what will be our next chapter, couldn’t anticipate what a dictator like Saddam could do, neither could we trust the American promise,” Mozan said. “Iraqis hesitated to trust the Americans because of what happened during Desert Storm in the 1990’s. At that time, the U.S. military marched into Iraq to defend Kuwait – only coming half way to Baghdad when the campaign was halted. The Iraqis who’d stood against Saddam were abandoned and promptly executed by Saddam.”

Mozan continues, “After the dust settled and the dream came somewhat true watching Saddam’s regime fall apart it was an overwhelming mix of happiness, nervousness and anxiety amid the chaos. Late 2004, I watched how the very troops who came to change our lives for better were being attacked by foreigners coming across the border to defend radical ideology.”

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Mozan translates for Army Colonel Jim Bowie (left of Mozan in center) with Iraqi soldiers and civilians accompanying them.

Mozan could not remain a bystander, thus allowing others to decide his peoples’ future. With his grade school knowledge of the English language, plus five years of English in college, he decided to help the American troops. “I worked as a part time interpreter while completing my senior year in college. Upon graduating, I focused completely on being a linguist,” Mozan recalls, “Financially the job offered little money compared to the risk I was putting myself and family in, however it gave me satisfaction that I was making difference. I was standing up to people doing harm to innocent citizens on both sides, Iraqis and Americans.”

The trials Mozan faced in combat from 2006 to 2007 were the most difficult. He worked with an elite unit in Baqubah, and they were involved in nearly-daily firefights with enemy forces. “Unfortunately [we] lost many brothers in arms. During those years between when I started in 2004 to 2007, my family was under constant threat and extreme risk by insurgents. The enemy knew the value of the interpreters to the Coalition Force’s mission. Without linguists the troops’ mission was significantly impacted. I was not only dealing with the risk I was facing every day, but most importantly my family, who had no protection. They faced radicals who would threaten them with harm in hopes of persuading me to quit the job. It became impossible for me to go home a visit my family. I was forced to stay on base with the troops because, every time I traveled on my own, the insurgents attempted to kill me.”

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Pictured here is Mozan with then SSG Ochoa. The day this photograph was made was one that changed his life forever. “We were in a very bad situation where we came too close to being possibly killed or captured by the enemy after being trapped and surrounded by enemy from all four sides. We only had 4 of us on top of one of the houses. You can see the shots on the front windshield of the vehicle.”

There were many horrors going on in Mozan’s life. His U.S. teammates convinced him to apply for a special immigrant Visa program. Established by President Bush, the special program allowed Iraqi linguists who supported troops during the war move to America. This was perfect for Mozan, but it involved fleeing the country. “I had no hope the Visa approval would ever happen,” he said.

It took five long months waiting in Egypt to get the news from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that he was approved for travel. “After spending everything I had while awaiting the Visa, I had little to no money. I called the only people I could rely on – my brothers that I went through combat with. I called Lieutenant Colonel Damon Holditch, who didn’t hesitate to send me money to help purchase my airfare to the United States.”

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Mozan shared a photograph of him in front of the Statute of Liberty in New York with these words, “Just a few months before that picture I was trapped and considered traitor in my own country, so to be by the Statue of Liberty and live the freedom here in the United States meant a lot to me.”

On September 17th, 2007, he arrived in Huntsville, Alabama, where Colonel Jim Bowie, Mozan’s former commander in Iraq, and Colonel Dustin Awtrey, Bowie’s deputy in Iraq, welcomed him with open arms. “They took me in into their homes and treated me like their own son,” he says. He started from square one with nothing in his pockets, and he waited anxiously to receive his green card and social security card so he could begin working. Being in America was an immense culture shock, and he had to adjust to his chosen new society. He eventually was offered a job as an Arabic linguist and deployed to Iraq once again. There was one difference though, “My salary was nowhere near the $600 a month I received when I was a local national linguist.”

Afterwards he went to Camp Pendelton, California, where he completed three months of processing and another three months of training. From there, he deployed to Iraq. After a year-and-a-half, he resigned his position and returned to the United States.

I had excellent income, reflects Mozan. An in many a friend’s eye, I’d earned the title “soldier” in all but name. However, I felt compelled to become a soldier in reality.

Mozan enlisted in the U.S. Army shortly after returning from Iraq in 2009. During this time, he met the woman that he knew would be his biggest support in his journey. Mozan explains, “Sarah, who is the mother of my two beautiful children, and I met through mutual friends at Redstone Arsenal Army Base where she worked at the PX. We got Married 2 months before I departed for basic training. My first duty station was Hawaii where I served as a logistician and worked my way up the promotion ladder to attain the rank of Sergeant. Both my children were born there, my daughter, Mariam, was born on 09/19/2011, and my son, Youssif, was born on 10/02/2013.”

After serving 4 years of active duty, Mozan transitioned into the U.S. Army Reserves, where he trained to become a cardiovascular technologist. He currently works at the Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, as a contractor. Mozan is considering applying to the U.S. Army Physician Assistant Program next year and becoming a commissioned officer.

“I try to speak about my story,” explains Mozan. “I want to share how the war in Iraq presented very opportunity I got. I believe it’s my duty as a soldier to educate people and tell the truth. The friends I made from 2005-2007, where I saw most of the combat, are my family. We stay in touch. The hardships we survived made us stronger than blood brothers. Many people ask me how I faced all the stress and overcame the risk. My answer is, ‘I believed in the job I was doing and I trusted my fellow soldiers would keep me alive.'”

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Mozan with his team, “Alamo”, from his 2006-2007 deployment. These men are the ones who helped him directly to move to the U.S., and they continue to be his mentors and consider him their own family.

© Veteran portrait by Stacy L. Pearsall, story by Des’ola Mecozzi

 

Featured Veteran: Ron Pearsall

Ron Pearsall is the Veterans Portrait Project founder’s uncle. Pearsall is a Marine Corps veteran who was a mortarman and draftsman during the Vietnam War era.

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Ron Pearsall suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. He is partially disabled, and is currently unemployed.  Part of his PTSD therapy is renovating an older model of a sixteen foot travel trailer. We are asking for help to support a fellow veteran, ultimately giving him a place of his own to call home.

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To support Ron Pearsall, click here to view his GoFundMe page and donate. We at the Veterans Portrait Project appreciate any support you can provide, even if it is as simple as sharing his GoFundMe page.

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© Veteran portrait by Stacy L. Pearsall, story by Des’ola Mecozzi

In Memory of Megan Halagan

In 2014, we met Megan Halagan in Killeen, Texas. She was a U.S. Army veteran who served as a specialist from November of 2009 to May of 2014.

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Earlier this month, we were informed she had passed away. She had been battling cancer for four years. Halagan is survived by her husband, Harry, and is the mother of three children (ages three years old to thirteen years old): Sage, Jeremiah, and Aliyah.

Halagan was laid to rest at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery with military honors.

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We at the Veterans Portrait Project are grateful we got to meet and photograph Halagan. We send our dearest condolences to her family during this time.

© Veteran portrait by Stacy L. Pearsall, story by Des’ola Mecozzi

City of Luverne, MN, Displays the VPP

In the Fall of 2015, the Veterans Portrait Project photographed in Luverne, Minnesota. Right now, you can find public art displaying the veterans photographed from when we visited!

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Intersection of Hwy 75 and Main Street displays veterans photographed by the Veterans Portrait Project in Luverne, Minnesota.

You can find the photographs showcased in flag park corner near the intersection of Highway 75 and Main Street. These veterans displayed are local to Minnesota, and we are very honored to share these amazing heroes’ faces for all to see.

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With the help of Holly Sammons and Diane Lynn Sherwood, this was possible, and we send them our gratitude and thanks.

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© Veteran portraits by Stacy L. Pearsall, story by Des’ola Mecozzi

Featured Veteran: Elizabeth B. Johnson

Elizabeth B. Johnson is proof how greatness and big things can come in small packages. We had the honor to meet and photograph her earlier this month in Hickory, North Carolina. She was an Army veteran serving in the Six-Triple Eight Central Postal Battalion, an all African-American-Woman unit serving overseas during WWII, as a truck driver and postal clerk.
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“My career with the Army started on March 11, 1943. After joining I was sent to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, for basic training for approximately eight weeks. From there I was sent to Camp Campbell, Kentucky, which is now called Fort Campbell. I was stationed there for approximately 16 months.” Johnson explains.

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“From Fort Campbell, I was sent to Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia for basic overseas training. After leaving Fort Oglethorpe, I was sent to New York where we were going to be shipped overseas. During our travels to Birmingham, England, the captain of the ship noticed a submarine in the waters ahead of us, we were told we had to sleep in our clothes that night. Consequently, the ship turned around and headed back to New York.”

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Elizabeth B. Johnson with friends during WWII.

Later, Johnson’s captain had the okay that things were clear and they continued to England. “While in England I drove a truck transporting goods to different locations. Sometimes I would even transport soldiers to different locations as well. I served in England for approximately eight months, and was then shipped to Rouen, France.”

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While Johnson was in Rouen, she worked in a makeshift post office building. That was where she and the others in the Six-Triple Eight Central Postal Battalion separated mail that “had been stacked to the ceiling”. Johnson recalls, “We worked tirelessly trying to separate all the mail and get it to the troops. Mail was one thing the troops looked forward to getting each week, and we worked to make sure they received their mail.” Johnson and almost 800 other women of the unit sorted mail for over seven million people in the European Theater of Operations. She worked at the makeshift post office for around eight months, and then the war ended. “We had a choice to stay there or come back to the United States,” Johnson said, “Since I had lost my father during this time and found out that my mother was sick, I decided to come home and be with her.” In November of 1945, she sailed back to the United States on the Queen Mary.
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When asked what was the most memorable or most significant during her service, she said, “While serving in Rouen, France, I remember bombs dropping and shaking the building we were working in.”

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Elizabeth B. Johnson being photographed by Stacy Pearsall on April 9, 2016

Special thanks goes to Johnson’s daughter, Cynthia, for providing the great personal photographs.

© Veteran portrait by Stacy L. Pearsall, story by Des’ola Mecozzi

Featured Veteran: Joseph Otho Goble

How many of us can imagine reaching seventy-five years old? What about one hundred? Joseph Otho Goble has passed both at one hundred and one years old! Goble was a Marine veteran serving in WWII as a platoon sergeant, and was awarded the Silver Star for combat actions on Guadalcanal.

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Goble’s journey of enlisting was not easy. The year was 1940. At twenty-seven years of age, he was working in Washington, D.C., and knew he was going to be drafted soon. Therefore, he went to his home state of North Carolina to join the military. “I went to Charlotte to join the Marines,” Goble recalls, “They (the recruiters) said, ‘We’re sorry, we allow six Marines here, six Marines in Nashville, six Marines in Winston-Salem, and six Marines in Raleigh, that’s all.’ ” The Charlotte recruiting office was full, and so was the Nashville’s. “They called Winston-Salem, and that office said, ‘Come over real quick, we have one opening’. I then had to take the car back to my dad’s, get on the bus, and by the time I got to Winston, they had already filled it.” He remembers it was almost closing time at the Winston-Salem recruiting office, and the recruiter said he would call Raleigh. There were two openings left. “For God’s sake, put Goble down,” the recruiter exclaimed. At eight o’clock the next morning, he enlisted in his requested branch of service.

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“You’re handsome,” Pearsall says to Goble. “Thank you.” Goble replies modestly.

When Stacy Pearsall asked if he would talk about the events surrounding his Silver Star, he gave us all a laugh. “You want to know about it now??” Goble genuinely asks. “Yes sir, please,” Pearsall says with a smile. “Well it’s sort of a long story.” “I’ve got time for you.” Stacy says.

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Goble receiving the Silver Star in 1942

“We were in battle across the Guadalcanal (Tenaru) River behind the Japanese where another battalion was on the other side of the river where they were holding the Japanese off over there, and we went behind the Japanese,” he explains. “We were told to push right into the Japs from that side, so I was to take my opportunity to the right and the rest of the battalion to the left. So, there was only about twenty-six of us. I lost two men going over the valley.”

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Joseph’s Marine Corps portrait taken upon enlistment.

“I was placing my men twenty-five steps apart because we didn’t have enough to cover,” he continues. “Machine guns started to fire from the jungles, so I got one of my men who had rifle grenades and went where we could look over the jungles’ ridge to see where the machine guns were coming from. We fired several rifle grenades, and I could watch them go up and back down again. That’s when we didn’t hear anymore machine guns, and I went back to check on my men. One of them yelled, ‘Russ is hit, Russ is hit! (WR Russ)’ [unfortunately, Russ passed away before returning home]. I went up to Russ, and I thought he was hit in the stomach. We started to drag him back, and I probably got from here to that wall over there (approximately ten to fifteen feet) when I got hit.”

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Stacy speaks with Joseph about his experiences in the Pacific during WWII.

“I was trying to figure out whose foot I was laying on,” remembers Goble. “The corpsman got up to me and I said, ‘Whose foot am I laying on?’. He says, ‘That’s your foot.’ This foot (his left) was all the way back up here (points to the back of his head), and he dressed my leg and straightened it out with splints and gave a couple shots in the arm. Before I went to sleep, I could look out over the ocean and I said, ‘Whose ships are those out there? I’m counting 13 ships: two large ships and the rest destroyers.’ Someone said, ‘There’s no ships out there.’ I said, ‘There are!’ When I woke up, they had all the wounded from the battalion and put me on a boat to the hospital. That’s what I remember ….. Sure enough that night, thirteen ships came in, and it was one of the biggest ship battles they had. Can you figure that out?”

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Goble has one friend left from his unit who lives in Georgia now. He calls him about once a month. After the service, he was told to get a job sitting down or else he would be standing with a cane.He ended up becoming a jeweler for many years. He was also told he would have his leg removed before his 50th birthday. Obviously, that person was incorrect. He was an avid hiker until the age of ninety-five. Even being over one hundred years old, he still works out on cardio machines and is a prime example of, “What’s your excuse?”.

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Des’ola takes the opportunity to make a selfie with an American hero, Joseph Goble.

Special thanks goes to those who made it possible in meeting and having the honor to photograph Goble.

Stacy Pearsall

“Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. But, the Marines don’t have that problem.” ― Ronald Reagan

© Veteran portrait by Stacy L. Pearsall, story by Des’ola Mecozzi

Featured Veteran: Larry Gunter

Larry Gunter was the next to youngest of five siblings and the thinnest when he volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army in 1971. He was barely 18 years old (a month and ten days) when he was sworn into the military on April 13, 1971.

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Gunter went through basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He remembers being in barracks which WWII soldiers had once been in before him.

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Basic Training (Fort Jackson, SC) in Spring of 1971. From left to right: Hutchinson from North Carolina, Amos from Florida, Gunter from South Carolina, and Joyner from North Carolina (who knew Hutchinson before).

Let us back up just a little bit before his basic training for a fun fact. Prior to entering the service, he knew his future wife, Elizabeth, from going to school together. She remembers he was 118 pounds, and that was only one pound more than she was in the early 1970’s. Below is proof, documentation done at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, that he gained weight before going overseas to Vietnam. It also states at one time his height was 5’7″. “I still am 5’7″!” Gunter exclaims during his interview.

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While in Vietnam, he had an instance where he proved Timex wrong on “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” During crossfire, shrapnel stuck in the watch’s face instead of going through his left wrist. He has a scar from it that is still visible today. He sent the watch back to his family while he was still overseas, but they did not know the significance of it and it was thrown away.

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Gunter at Deep Water Piers in Danang, Vietnam. “Somehow the Army stole that (bus) from the Air Force.” The Army would drive the soldiers around until they realized it had too many bullet holes on the sides. “We were in a unit where if we saw something we wanted, we took it.”

Although he does not like to talk much about his experience in Vietnam, he said, “I liked the military. For all of the hardships that life threw at me, it helped me to keep my temper.” He believes serving in Vietnam helped him to face life’s twists and turns which he faced when he returned home.

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Above is a photograph he made of the Marble Mountains in the distance. At one point, his unit was on top of what the Vietnamese call Ngũ Hành Sơn; “Five elements mountains”. These mountains are full of tunnels. Despite how scenic they are today, these mountains were not safe for our American soldiers.

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One story he shares while in Vietnam involves the refrigerator which he is posing with in the above photograph. The television sitting on top of it only had one channel, and it was only available for eight hours a day. Gunter bought the refrigerator from his battle buddy, Glover, and kept a lock on it. The contents were always cigarettes, beer, and Ritz crackers. They did not always have electricity, so the fridge was a good way to keep bugs out. One day, he noticed the lock was broken with the door removed and some cigarettes were missing. A guy who served with Gunter, known for his striking red hair, admitted to stealing the cigarettes boldly stating, “I needed some cigarettes” (Side note: Gunter has never liked things stolen from him, whether it be in a foreign country or in his own home). After the soldier did not understand him feeling slighted, Gunter took his M16 and put it next to his head saying, “Those are my damn cigarettes, and that is my damn refrigerator. You touch these again and I’ll blow your head off.” He never had his cigarettes stolen again. After the service, he stopped smoking because the price of cigarettes was too high. Imagine thinking twenty-five cents a pack is expensive for your nicotine fix.

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When he returned to the United States, it was 3 a.m. in San Francisco, California. He remembers protestors lining the fence outside the tarmac. When the soldiers walked from the airplane, rotten fruit was thrown at them with negative comments. Even the taxi driver was not welcoming, dropping him off a mile and a half away with his heavy military bags to carry.

Gunter spoke some blunt truth about how difficult it was to integrate into the workforce after Vietnam. “I came back to the same darn job I had when I was a teenager. Nobody would hire you or nothing because at the end of Vietnam, you could not find a job for almost a solid seven years until Reagan came in and changed the economy,” Gunter explains. “What I lived on from ’74 to ’76 (when he was in college) …..gas money. If I had a drink and a honey bun I was doing good. I lived just a little above minimum wage.”

After college, he tried to find a decent job. He was hired at Fiberglass in South Carolina. “They said they hired me as an electrician, but I did not get the electrician job.” After some time passed, he asked when he was going to get a job in the field he studied for, and the company had said they wanted people with a college degree and at least ten years of experience. Gunter replied with, “Okay, I’ll give my letter of resignation tomorrow.” He stayed true to his word, and quit the following day.

“Then I went to work with the city of Columbia. They were going to hire me as an electrician. Well, I went to work at the water department where I worked on transmitters and receivers that everybody had hated me because they wanted that job and couldn’t do it. They would sabotage things because I was working on it. I come back from having it fixed and it would be burned up. I worked there for a year and a half. Then, I went to a machine and tool company. I learned a lot of electrical stuff.” Gunter explained how he went to Boston for this particular company, and since they would not pay for him to stay in a hotel he stayed in the airport all night until the next available flight home the following morning.

“Finally, I got a job at the Savannah River Site (in Augusta, GA), in September of 1981.” When asked how he got the job, he earnestly said, “I put in for it for seven years.” After a year, he got another job within the company and saw his work report. The report stated, “Would not hire.” Gunter further describes, “”Vietnam Vet. Combat experience. Would not hire: Think he would be a problem due to his experience in the military.”” When he read this, he asked, “What does it take to be hired here? I was told you hire veterans.” The woman he was speaking to said, “Well, we’ll look into it.” It took an additional thirteen months for Gunter to be hired.

Gunter worked as a Senior Electrical Instrumentation Technician at S.R.S. for almost twenty years, retiring in 2000. He invented numerous things for the company, but was acknowledged as the inventor for two. He invented the safety harness (patent found here) and the catwalk grate lifting tool (patent found here).

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Larry Gunter in Danang, Vietnam, before going on patrol in 1971 (left). Larry Gunter in Charleston, South Carolina, in the VPP location at the Citadel in September 2015 (right).


Today, he is a farmer. He says confidently, “Farming gives me peace of mind. As much aggravation as it gives me, it still gives me peace of mind. With all of the people who have done me wrong and all of the combat experience, when I’m with the animals it gives peace of mind. It also drives me crazy. It is a better crazy than what I had to put up with.”

VPP Blogger’s Note: What viewers may not know is Larry Gunter is my dad. Talk about Vietnam was hush-hush with me, and interviewing him was the most I had ever heard about his service. He spoke more about it than I thought I would, and it was difficult to narrow down what to put in his feature. I am hoping if there are viewers out there who are Vietnam Veterans, they aren’t feeling as alone before they read this. As I grew older, I learned the nightmare of what was called the Vietnam War. When I started assisting the VPP, I got to meet numerous veterans to understand (even a little) further of why my dad is the man he is today. If I needed to describe my dad, he is a George Bush-look-alike who speaks the same as him. He’s a great business man who watches some military movies and western television shows too loud. He’s a lover of guns, and feels the need to have them around him even today. Last but not least, he makes the best boiled peanuts I have ever had, and despite being old-fashioned leaving the cooking to my mom, he takes great pride and time to make that southern summer food. Thank you, Daddy, for your service.

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© Veteran portrait by Stacy L. Pearsall, story by Des’ola Mecozzi