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Bethel veterans recall service and life beyond it

Alaska Territorial Guard Memorial Park in Bethel
Staff Sgt. Balinda O'Neal Dresel/Alaska National Guard Public Aff
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Digital
Buck Bukowski, a Vietnam veteran, reflects on his time in the U.S. Navy from 1966 to 1972 during a tour of the Alaska Territorial Guard Memorial Park on Sept. 23, 2017 in Bethel. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Balinda O’Neal Dresel).

Just over 13% of Alaskans are veterans, more than twice the national average. Several hundred are from the Bethel census area, including three men at Bethel’s VFW post who shared memories and stories on the eve of Veterans Day.

In Bethel, Veterans Day means something to a lot of people

Buck Bukowski served in the Navy. He made the decision to join when he was 18-years-old, living in upstate New York.

“My parents had a bar,” Bukowski said. “I graduated from high school and was working in a foundry. And [thought] ‘this ain't gonna be it for me. Ain't gonna work in no foundry. I got to do something.’ And Vietnam was going on and they're drafting all my buddies left and right, and I skipped going to work one night, ran away from home and went to Syracuse, New York and got inducted into the service."

His dad was a Chief in the Navy Reserve at the time, he said. When he joined, Bukowski said that he spent a lot of his time in the ocean on a carrier.

“I tried my best to get beach detachment in Da Nang, but they wouldn't let me off the carrier,” he said. “I was fixing planes too good; they wouldn't let me go.”

Bukowski said that growing up, Veterans Day meant a lot.

“I was born right after World War II. So everybody in that town was a veteran and World War II veterans were honored pretty good,” he said. “Veterans Day is to honor all veterans and it should be that way. And in a lot of places it is. I think in Bethel, Veterans Day means something to a lot of people.”

It comes with a cost

Henry J. Hunter Sr., served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971.

“The reason I joined was at that time, you know, the Vietnam War was going on,” he said. “With the President, John F. Kennedy, and his words were ‘ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ That inspired a lot of youths either to join the military or do something for the country.”

Hunter Sr. said that a lot of people in his family served in the military.

“I’ve had my brothers, Joseph Hunter and Andrew Hunter serve in the Alaska National Guard,” he said. “[My father served] in the Alaska Territorial Guard.”

Hunter Sr. said that he spent time at Camp Eagle, on the coast near central Vietnam.

“My company was fighting in the jungle there, down the DMZ line between North and South. My, our objective was to basically stop the flow of supplies to the North Vietnamese Army,” he said.

Serving on the front lines comes with a cost. The sights, smells, and sounds of the battlefield don’t stay overseas, they return with you. The battlefield wounds are still fresh for Hunter Sr. when he reflects on his experience.

“Well, you know, my first combat, you know, I was you know, I faced death and I was never so afraid in my life,” he said. “But after that, you know, the sergeant talked to me about ‘well either you're gonna die or you're gonna live,’" he said. "I got wounded over there in Vietnam. I never like to think about it too much because too many of my friends passed away or died, but I survived.”

Hunter Sr. said that he was awarded an Air Medal, a Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart.

“Veterans Days, you know, I'm proud to be a veteran because we fought for democracy and the freedom that Americans and Alaskans enjoy today. I'm glad to be a part of it. I'm also glad those veterans who wore the military uniform in peacetime and they are veterans.”

We do our best to help veterans out here

Like Hunter Sr., James Theodore Wyckoff had family who served in the military. He enlisted in the Navy on July 23, 1968.

“I had uncles and aunts that were in the Navy during World War II and Korea. So that was kind of the drawing card there,” he said.

Serving in the military doesn’t guarantee combat, deployments, promotions, or medals. There’s a saying amongst service members when you enlist in the military: “experiences may vary.”

Wyckoff said that he did “pick up a pilot” duty in the Gulf of Tonkin.

“We were usually within a mile of the beach. And we carried a Big Mother [Helicopter] and a couple of Cobras,” he said. “And a Cobra would run cover for the Big Mother when you're picking up a pilot that was shot down. So we got to see a lot of the coast from about a mile away.”

Wyckoff works at the VFW.

“We try to do our best to help veterans out here. And we do a lot of contributing, financial assistance, food assistance, anything that we can do to help veterans who are struggling with medical issues, or they need help with rent, or they need help with fuel bills. Things like that, we will help them.

Francisco Martínezcuello is the KYUK News Reporting Fellow and a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.