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Bedford H. Forte Jr., 94 | U.S. Navy
1942-46 | Petty Officer 2nd Class

As a teenager, Forte clashed with his stepfather. Rather than obey his orders or make matters worse, Forte signed enlistment papers to join the U. S. Navy in 1942. Today, he honors more than 270 black soldiers who fought in the Civil War by placing flags on their graves in Cleveland’s Woodland Cemetery.

Racial prejudice starts within the four walls of a house. If you take a bunch of babies and put them in a playpen, they don’t know black, white, Chinese, Japanese, Korean or nothing else. They’re all babies. 

You just have to live with it and overcome it. 

In section 72 of the Woodland Cemetery on Quincy Avenue, there are 272 “colored” troops from the Civil War. On their stones it says, “USCT,” the United States Colored Troops. I’ve flagged those graves every year for four years. 

At the time I went in, the United States Navy had begun to accept “colored” men into the Great Lakes as seamen equal to the whites. Before that, any “colored” that went into the Navy was either a steward, a cook, a baker or a fireman. 

We had our own mess hall, our own barracks, our own drill hall. The main side was all Caucasians. We were altogether different. We did not sleep together, we didn’t drill together, we didn’t train together.

Once there was a chief petty officer who used the wrong word to me. He used the N-word, and I knocked him on his behind and stomped the hell out of him. I tried to kick his face off.

I was court marshaled for fighting.

It’s just like going to jail.

You’d eat bread and water, and you’d eat one full meal every third day.

You learn over a period of time how to do a lot of things that you didn’t want to do. 

If I didn’t want to do something, I’d take a penny or a dime and heat it, put it in my mouth and go to the sick bay. 

During World War II, my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, she had been in an accident. I was in Boston, Massachusetts. You’re not supposed to go more than 50 miles away from the base. I caught a train and came all the way from Boston to here, because she was in an accident. I just said the hell with it.

If my wife were alive today, we would be married 72 years. Love and affection overcomes all time. If there’s no love and affection, it don’t last.

I still love her.

Jim Alunni, 46 | U.S. Navy
2003-06 | Petty Officer 3rd Class

A Chagrin Falls firefighter, Alunni joined the Navy after watching the 9/11 terror attacks. He earned a Purple Heart as a corpsman while with Brook Park’s 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, which lost 48 members by the end of its tour in Iraq.

All I wanted to do was be a Marine, but they told me I was too old. I was 30. 

A Navy corpsman is a cross between a paramedic and a nurse. If we’re in the field and you get injured, I’m the guy taking care of you. 

Marines are built to fight, and that’s it. So if they get injured, they need somebody. 

I was assigned to a sniper platoon. I ended up one of the two corpsmen in this platoon of about 25 to 30 guys. 

The sniper teams had four people, and I was the fourth person.

When we got to our first [forward operating base in Iraq], it was tiny. 

The only time you could take off your flak jacket and your Kevlar helmet was when you were inside, because it was a concrete building.

We were in Al Anbar province. It is most of the northwest part of the country like from the Sunni Triangle all the way to the Syrian border.

You were out more than you were on base. You’d be out in the field for a couple days, but you’d be all by yourself. 

It’s not like a video game. If you screw up, there’s nobody coming to help you for at least an hour, you’re stuck. There’s only three or four of you, and they are going to find you quick if you pull the trigger.

I was injured by a suicide bomber. I think there was about a month left in the deployment, and the sniper platoon got ambushed.

Midday the radios started chattering that they were pulling sniper teams out. You don’t move during the day, you move at night — especially if you’re a sniper team. 

This guy came up to me and he’s like, “I don’t know how to tell you this, so I’m just going to tell you. Six snipers just got killed north of here.”

They had found five of the six bodies. So they mobilized the entire battalion so we could find [the last sniper]. There was intel that he was in a taxi and was captured.

We got out on the road and stopped taxis and stopped everything, checked every vehicle all over this huge area of operations. 

The driver [of my Humvee] said, “Something’s wrong with that vehicle. It looks weighed down and really heavy.” 

We all opened the doors to the Humvee and then everything went quiet and black. I felt dizzy. I couldn’t hear or see anything. It kind of felt like something had just punched me. I fell out of the Humvee and as soon as I hit the ground, my eyes opened.

I was just surrounded by body parts.

Another Marine came behind me and laid me down and kept saying, “What do we do, Doc? What do we do?”

The first thing I said was, “Call the f---ing helicopter.”

There’s a lot of my blood in the soil of Iraq somewhere.

My initial injuries were enough to kill me unless someone intervened. 

I loved every bit about my service until that last day.

Tiffany Walker, 33 | U.S. Air Force
2001-07 | Senior Airman

Walker didn’t know what to do. With no money for college, she needed direction. So her mom pushed her to join the military. Now, the former information manager volunteers at multiple nonprofits including U.S. Veterans of Ohio and provides support to other veterans.

I had gotten married right before I went in.

I didn’t want to [marry him]. 

My score from the [Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery] showed I was more technically inclined, which I didn’t know. I never knew how to type beforehand. I never messed around with any computers, so it was a new world for me.

I’m like, This is for geeks and nerds. What am I doing here? I want a cool job.

I fell in love with it.

I had my daughter in ‘02. 

That’s when her dad [was in] jail. That was kind of a rough period, because I’m like, What am I going to do with this baby? I’m out of state. It was just really stressful. 

I worked at the basic training headquarters. We helped the commanders set up software,

I would say we had a mission critical job. 

We have core values: Service before self, integrity and excellence in all we do. 

[These values] came before even my daughter, even before myself. And that was a hard thing to swallow. Well, can’t go home. I’m tired. I got to put in overtime. 

Just being on call like that was very stressful. 

We had a family resource center on base. They helped a lot. They have like a food pantry, financial assistance. It was kind of like welfare for military.

I had orders to [South] Korea in 2003. 

I got an anthrax shot. I got all these vaccines. 

I had to put a will together. That was scary. 

They ended up canceling it due to closing the base. I’m like, Well, you just gave us orders. How did you close the base?

They gave us a buyout option. They paid us a severance pay, and I just took that.

Sometimes I don’t feel like a real veteran because of how I left and how I didn’t go overseas. But my guys at [U.S. Veterans of Ohio] always tell me, “You’re just as much of a veteran as anyone. You did your time and served your country.” 

Chris King, 30 | U.S. Army
2005-12 | Sergeant

King was a freshman at Twinsburg High School on Sept. 11, 2001, or he would have joined the Army that day. His father, a Vietnam veteran, had instilled in him a sense of civic pride and duty to protect others. So he signed up in 2005, served as a telecommunications specialist, became a paratrooper and was deployed to Afghanistan four times, including once with the unit responsible for the death of Osama bin Laden.

I always liked the whole warrior aspect of [the military]. The guys who were doing that were heroes and icons.

I’d dress up and play war with my neighbors.

On my first assignment in Afghanistan, I was with a small squad. We were at this place called Forward Operating Base Rushmore, and we were supposed to train the Afghan locals on how to work radios. 

Every night, we’d help them read maps, help them with the radios. We were trying to build up their army and train their police force so we could leave and they could help themselves. 

Half the time they never really wanted to fight. 

We were like, “This is your country. We trained you guys. You should want to fight for your own country.” 

They were too scared. 

We were driving to a location, and the first truck saw fresh dirt across the road. We called our explosive ordnance disposal technician.

He was a friend of mine. His name was Popp. He was 27 years old. He had a daughter. 

He was going to sweep the area. While this was happening, all the Afghan locals came out. There had to be more than 60 people around us at this time. 

He walks over to the IED area, realizes it is a bomb, goes back to his truck to grab some equipment, walks back over to the IED area and BOOM. Gone.

You get out. You pick up whatever pieces you can of that person and you go.

I think I saw his ghost at least two times after that.

It changes you.

You start realizing this shit is real. It’s not like when you were a kid, and you’re just playing with your neighbors. This dude was just playing basketball one day, and he’s dead the next.

After that, I didn’t see the reason for us to die anymore for them. I wanted them to fight their own war.

America is more at war with itself than it was when I first joined. We’re having trouble taking care of our own people — the water in Flint, Michigan, people dying, the government rolling over lands to put a pipeline on land that doesn’t belong to them.

If America doesn’t follow its own laws, what are we walking into?

I applaud what the athletes are doing. Because when people say, “We fought for that flag and died for that flag, you should stand up,” they also fought for you to make your own decisions. 

That’s freedom. Obedience is not patriotism. 

Ayron Evans, 32 | U.S. Army National Guard
2004-12 | Specialist

As a transgender man, Evans often struggled during his time in the National Guard from the transitions between service and home life to restrictions placed on him based on his gender. In October, he organized Trans in the CLE, a transgender conference in Cleveland to help bring the community together.

I’ve always felt like a man, but I didn’t know what transgender was. At the time I was in the military, I couldn’t talk about that.

They didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell.

To identify as a man, but physically be a woman in the military is very difficult because things are very straightforward. Men do this, women do that. 

It basically made you feel like women couldn’t do what men could do.

My battle buddy was a lot of trouble. She did a lot of stuff to try to get out. She thought if she got in trouble, they’d kick her out. They didn’t. They just punished us both for what she did. I couldn’t stand that.

She ended up sitting out for the obstacle course, and that’s how I got closer to [this tall African-American guy]. I’m very short.

We pushed each other.

That’s when I said, “I can’t have this battle buddy, so this is now my battle buddy.”

It was a little weird because your battle buddy should be the same sex as you, because you had to use the bathroom together and do everything together. 

You learn that it’s better to protect the whole vs. just one person. 

We got calls out of nowhere. 

I was called into [Hurricane] Katrina when I was in the middle of school.

We patrolled the streets cause there was curfew. There was no electricity, no lights.

We got wind of a homeless shelter. They didn’t have any food.

A squad of us and the Marines, we got together and got a truck filled of our [ready-to-eat military rations]. We went out to the shelter and distributed the MREs for them. That was just awesome.

I honestly do not think that there are transgender or gender non-conforming individuals trying to join the military so that they can get the benefits or just so they can get the surgeries and things like that. And if they are, what’s the difference between someone joining the military for medical reasons versus the individuals joining for the military to pay for college?

Arnie Stanko, 66 | U.S. Marines
1970-72 | Corporal

Stanko was raised to serve. With World War II Army vets as parents, he and his two older bothers volunteered for the military out of high school. A combat engineer responsible for locating and defusing explosives during the Vietnam War, Stanko was honorably discharged in 1972 and spent 38 years as a police officer in Lake County before retiring as chief of the Middlefield Police Department in 2014.

We probably started out with close to 80 or 90 guys [in boot camp], and by the time we graduated in eight weeks, we were down to 40. 

They challenged you every day, physically and mentally, day in and day out.

You no longer have a first name. You’ve got a last name or some other name attached to you, and you learn to respond to that name.

There was a purpose for all of that: breaking you down. They brought you back as a Marine. If you can go through that type of training, you can get through a war, because they teach you and instill in you survival.

They taught me that if you’re going to make a commitment, you make it and you carry it through.

I enlisted. Some didn’t go, and I could never understand why. 

To me, they were cowards. 

We went there to help and protect people. There was no way in hell I was not going to go. 

You’d go through villages, and you’d never know what the hell was going to happen. When we’d go out on patrol, I’d load up with Hershey bars and crackers, and give it to the kids. They would tell you things. They handed me coordinates for bombs that didn’t explode. They would carry them to me.

You try to be as friendly as you can. The stigma that was put on us over there, how we treated villages and village kids was just not true. 

The Vietnam War was never accepted by this country. We were never thanked.

We came back to protesters. The guys and people I knew, a majority of them wanted nothing to do with me, because I was a Marine and I was in Vietnam.

They hadn’t earned the right to talk to me or treat me that way or treat any Vietnam veteran that way. 

Strap a helmet on and go lay up in the rice patties and see what you want to protest. 

I’m proud of what I did. I’d do it again because it was the right thing to do.

It’s about having the courage to stand up and say, “You’re not going to hurt this person today,” and be committed to that.

The world and the country was in turmoil: demonstrations, protesters, the elections. You had blacks against whites. You had political wars. 

It’s come back around to bite us in the ass again.

Freedom is the right and privilege that was given to us by veterans. People don’t understand that. They think they earned it because they were born here or brought over here. 

Freedom is what veterans gave to this country.

Kimberly Hazelgrove, 44 | U.S. Army
1995-2004 | Sergeant 1st Class

Coming from a military family, Hazelgrove wanted more than her waitressing and factory jobs after high school. An intelligence specialist, she got married and had two kids while serving. Then her helicopter pilot husband was killed in Iraq. Now, she advocates for surviving military spouses and their families. 

I met my husband, Brian, at Fort Campbell [on the Tennessee-Kentucky border]. We were actually married in South Korea in 1999, because we went over there in 1998 together. We have a South Korean marriage license.

I had my son about a year after we returned. 

Having an infant is not easy. But we made dual military work as much as we could. There was a lot of, “Tag, you’re it.” 

I was deployed individually to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Our unit was in charge of the interrogation processes of the detainees. 

It was the first time that we had that kind of interagency support where we had many different analysts and interrogators working together from different units, different services, different departments to try and get intelligence to try and help our guys and gals overseas.

Our daughter Katelyn was born [at Fort Drum in New York]. Then Brian left when she was about 4 months old. He was killed when she was 6 months old.

He got deployed to Iraq with his unit. 

The reports say that it was severe weather, and the helicopter that he was flying had no navigation equipment. So if they lost sight, it was pretty much in God’s hands. 

I do hold the commander responsible. He should have known better than to send them out.

I just think everybody’s life has a plan and his plan, I guess, was not to be here for a long time.

When I was finally allowed to see him, he didn’t even have the right decorations on his uniform.

Back in 2004, it really wasn’t easy as a surviving spouse to continue in the military.

When I moved to Lorain, I moved here with no support at all. I tried to go to the veterans groups and say, “Hey, I’m here with two kids. I need help, I need support.” Nothing. 

Since it has happened to me, I’ve tried to figure out how I can make things better. I try to make the system better — everything from the casualty process to benefits delivery.

I became involved in Gold Star Wives of America, which is an organization of surviving spouses that have lost their service members through a combat service-related death.

I’ve done a lot of work with them over the years. [For my kids’] last spring break, we traveled down to [Washington,] D.C., and I made them walk the halls of Congress with me to try and get legislation passed that we’ve been working on for more than 15 years.

When Trump took over, we were thinking he is so brazen that maybe this is the one — the noninstitutional president that can finally get this passed. 

You don’t know how many times I’ve been out on Veterans Day, and I’ve been asked, “Oh, did your husband serve?” I’m like, “No, that’s me right there in uniform.” 

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