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

Featured Veteran: Jeffrey Sacks

Jeffrey Sacks was photographed during the Jewish War Veterans Convention in 2014. Sacks served in the Army as military police starting in 1979. We are honored he was able to share his deployment to Saudi Arabia in 1991.

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In 1990, Sacks took command of the 822nd Military Police Company in the U.S. Army Reserve located in the Chicago suburbs.  He was a full time Chicago Police Officer and also a Captain in the Illinois Army National Guard.  The 822nd MP Company was in need of a new commander due to poor ratings earned at the unit’s previous annual training to the Philippines performing a real world mission.  He set upon making all the unit’s soldiers, NCOs, and officers responsible concerning their individual and unit equipment (weapons, radios, chemical warfare, Humvees, etc).   In December of the same year, he and his command received orders mobilizing the company in support of Operation Desert Shield – Attaboy.

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Sacks in Saudia Arabia, Winter of 1991

On January 3, 1991, the rest of the company (slightly less than 200 soldiers) entered active duty and convoyed from their reserve center to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, to prepare for our deployment to Saudi Arabia.

Wisconsin was its usual weather in winter with sub zero temperatures and two feet of snow was on the ground at Fort McCoy as they trained for life in the desert.  The hills of snow helped them train to drive for what their near future would be hills of sand. They also had to paint some forty tactical vehicles sand color from their woodland camouflage pattern in the freezing cold motor pool area.  Sacks and his unit all re-qualified on old pistols (were using M1911 and M1911A1’s .45 caliber pistols, M16A1 rifles, M60 machine-guns, M2 .50 caliber Browning machine-guns, and M203 grenade launchers).  Sacks describes, “MP’s come to the party heavily armed”.

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With their training, they were asked to be a part of a mission. They were ordered to become a Prisoner of War MP Company.  “So we trained to perform the new mission and ordered everything we would need to perform our new mission.  Funny story – we ordered the amount of Lindane powder (kills lice on POW’s) we determined we would need to delouse the POW’s in our custody.  We got what we ordered and a week later we got a call from the Pentagon to return it as we now possessed the entire supply of Lindane powder for whole Department of Defense.  My Operations Sergeant, Supply Sergeant and I were just quicker thinkers than the brass at the big five sided building,” Sacks explained.

In February 1991, they took their flight on a chartered TWA 747 en-route from Volk Field Air National Guard Base to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.  “Lucky me, I got to sit in 1st class as I was the flight commander because most of the passengers were under my command and several senior field grade officers also traveling on the plane were more than happy to let me carry on.”  In the middle of the air war phase of Operation Desert Storm, they arrived to a land with a one hundred degree difference. Buses took them to Khobar Towers in Dhahran where they settled in their quarters and were assigned to a temporary mission of base defense.  Soon after, they had to split the company and send Sacks’ Third Platoon to the Port of Dammam where the Theater Aviation Maintenance Facility had been set up and needed protection. Sacks recollects, “My most vivid recollection of this time comes on the first Tuesday of every month when the City of Chicago tests the emergency sirens.  I am brought back to those same sirens followed by a public address announcement of SCUD Launch / SCUD Attack from base operations indicating that tactical ballistic missile(s) were inbound towards us.  Then the Patriot Air Defense Artillery Batteries collocated by us would fire at these inbound missiles.  One of the SCUD missiles landed very near us on February 26th, 1991, destroying a nearby barracks and killing 27 fellow reservists and injuring 98 more from a Pennsylvania Quartermaster outfit.  The ground shook like an earthquake when it landed.  This missile attack was the most devastating Iraqi stroke of the Persian Gulf War.  I wasn’t feeling that lucky to be a “REMF” that day.  I checked on my unit in both locations and all personnel were accounted for.  At 0300 hours I wasn’t able to sleep and I was listening to a BBC radio broadcast of the bad news concerning the attack, so by 0315 hours I was at the AT&T satellite phone bank in the pitch black dark making a very expensive call to the family support group to let them know we were all okay. I got a hold of my mother at her employer and she activated the telephone tree.”

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Jeffrey Sacks in Sarrar, Saudi Arabia (East POW camp), late Winter 1991

Through some heavy memories, Jeffrey Sacks shared some worthy stories from the POW Mission in March of 1991:

“One day in the middle of our tent encampment a Bedouin kid wearing the traditional red and white checked Keffiyeh comes walking in about a mile away from the POW camp and from out in the desert – sand as far as the eyes could see.  We showed him hospitality and he stayed for a meal.  He wanted to buy Marlboro’s from us and feeling sorry for him my unit armorer offered him a pack.  The kid proceeds to pull out a roll of U.S. currency that still makes me envious.”

“One 15-year-old Prisoner of War was marched into our camp wearing a Chicago Cubs t-shirt and Iraqi Army fatigue pants.  We pulled him out of the line of prisoners and spoke to him learning he had gone to Iraq in 1990 to visit his grandparents and got forcibly drafted into the Iraqi Army even though he was U.S. citizen.  Well being a Chicagoland based reserve unit we welcomed him, cleaned him up and eventually got him repatriated after debriefing from the intel guys.” Jeffrey Sacks ended this story with saying he is more of a Chicago White Sox fan.

Sacks says that deployment changed his life. Within a year of returning home, he became ill with a rare auto immune disease possibly linked to the then-classified Secret Anthrax inoculations. He accepted early medical disability retirement as a Major in the US Army Reserve in 1997. His children are also veterans. One is currently serving in Afghanistan where he is a commissioned officer serving as a Special Agent in the USAF Office of Special Investigation, and his stepson in the Field Artillery was injured by an improvised explosive device blast, earning the Purple Heart. He also has four grandchildren and another on the way.

Today, Jeffrey Sacks is active in the VFW, Jewish War Veterans, The American Legion. He is also a Mason and Shriner. When sharing his story, his final line was too good not to share. “Frankly I don’t know how I ever found time to earn money.”

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

 

Featured Veteran: Lisa M. Zunzanyika

The first time I ever met Air Force veteran, Lisa Zunzanyika, there was a word which came to mind: Vivacious! She and Stacy have known each other for many years, as they are both graduates of Syracuse University in New York. Zunzanyika earned the distinction of being the first African-American female Military Photojournalist in Air Force history.

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Zunzanyika retired from the Air Force after twenty-one years of service as a combat journalist. She traveled to numerous countries documenting military peacetime, wartime, and humanitarian operations. This included Sarajevo, Kosovo, and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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Today, she is the owner and operator of Simply Zee Imagery, and as a follower of hers on social media, she looks like she is living every day to the fullest. You can’t help but feel positive after being around Ms. Zunzanyika. Thank you for your service!

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

Featured Veteran: Virgil Bandy

Many veterans come in dressed to impress. In McClean, Virginia, one of our veterans photographed that day was the epitome of that phrase. In fact, his attire was nothing out of the ordinary. This veteran told us he had this ensemble in many colors, so perhaps his Sunday’s best is his every day best.

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Virgil Bandy is an Army veteran. He worked as a systems maintainer (or integrator) for a little over twenty years from 1984 to 2005.

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Bandy was photographed for the Veterans Portrait Project a little over two years ago, and his fashion sense is still remembered! From casual to full uniform, we love when veterans dress to express their personality within their photograph.

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

Featured Veteran: Jay F. Cabacar

In some locations we get to photograph in, there are some who take a little bit more talking with to coax them into having the honor to photograph them and their story.

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A prime example is Army veteran, Jay Cabacar. Des’ola was the first one to eye him in all of his uniform glory in the crowd of the VFW Convention in St. Louis, Missouri. She walked up to him, and that was the beginning of the journey to learning a part of his story. For half an hour, they chatted while sharing popcorn. There are times even after an hour of chatting (if time permits), a veteran decides to not be photographed. However, Cabacar accepted Des’ola’s almost-plea of asking to be a part of the Veterans Portrait Project at the end of talking 30 minutes.

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Stacy Pearsall chatting with Cabacar during the VFW Convention in 2014.

Cabacar enlisted in March of 1962. Consequently, this landed him squarely in the Vietnam War. He was part of the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns during that war. He achieved the highest enlisted rank in the Army, Sergeant Major. His inspiration to join the military was his father, also an Army veteran who served in WWII. Unfortunately, his father was murdered after returning home from war by thugs attempting to rob him. This tragedy was never solved.

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Des’ola with Cabacar after his portrait was made at the VFW Convention.

We are very grateful Jay Cabacar sat in the studio for his Veterans Portrait Project photograph. His immensely heroic efforts are not forgotten!

“Being a veteran is the highest honor. It’s my tribute to the greatest country in the world. God bless the USA!” – Cabacar

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

Featured Veteran: Joseph Buonsante

This week, our featured veteran is one we met about two and a half years ago in Pleasanton, California. Joseph Buonsante was a sergeant in the Army during the Korean War from 1952 to 1954. He worked in personnel.

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For the romantic in all of us, what was striking was he still had his wedding photograph in his wallet from years ago. He met his future bride in a train station, and the rest was history.

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For Mr. Buonsante, having his wedding photograph in his wallet was just a nonchalant fact about him. For us, it was a memorable thing for us to share even after a few years.

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

Featured Veteran: Kevin Mecozzi

Happy New Year, everyone! Our first featured veteran of 2016 is a U.S. Navy submarine veteran. Kevin Mecozzi has been active duty since 2008, and followed his father’s, Steven Mecozzi, footsteps in joining the U.S. Navy. He had basic training in Illinois, and subsequently was stationed in South Carolina. When he arrived in South Carolina that April, no one told him he could take off his Navy issued coat, fleece linings, gloves, and scarves, so he along with some other fellow new sailors were warmly welcomed to the state until they were assigned their rooms on base. This was his first memory of arriving to South Carolina.

The Citadel in Charleston, SC, Veterans Portrait Project

Two weeks before he was to be stationed in Connecticut, he met his now wife, Des’ola Mecozzi (who is part of the Veterans Portrait Project team), in South Carolina.

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USS Missouri SSN 780 in dry dock with the crew. Made in 2011.

In the submarine capital of the world, Mecozzi was aboard the USS Missouri SSN 780 which was commissioned July 31, 2010. Being gone on multiple underways, he also served two deployments on the fast-attack Virginia class submarine. Mecozzi earned his dolphins in 2010, and was the Junior Sailor of the Year in 2012. In 2014, he was ranked the #1 LELT on the waterfront by his squadron, Devron 12, of the New London Submarine Base. He was the last plank owner to leave the boat.

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Kevin Mecozzi and his wife, Des’ola Mecozzi, at the USS Missouri SSN 780 homecoming in Groton, Connecticut, after a scheduled 6-month deployment on December 20, 2013. Photograph made by Frances Mileski.

When joining the U.S. Navy, Mecozzi never thought he’d be a part of the silent service. Now, he is in a tightly knit brotherhood which will last a lifetime.

The Citadel in Charleston, SC, Veterans Portrait Project

“In each submarine there are men who, in the hour of emergency or peril at sea, can turn to each other. These men are ultimately responsible to themselves and each other for all aspects of operation of their submarine. They are the crew. They are the ship.” -The Submariner’s Creed (Excerpt)

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