ADDISON COUNTY — In the spring of 2006 Seth Kittredge had been in the Vermont Army National Guard for nine years and was ready to move on, take the next big steps in his life. He was ready to focus on his career; he’d just met the woman he would eventually marry.
“I was on my last enlistment, I was looking at getting out of the Guard so I could pursue my surveying career,” Kittredge recalled in a recent interview.
Then the Vergennes resident’s unit, the 131st Engineers, was activated for duty in the Iraq war.
“We got called up and I got put on stop loss so I had to stay for the duration of the tour,” he said.
“I wasn’t angry about being locked in to go. It was our job. It was what I was supposed to do, I was going to do it.”
Kittredge, now 32, was following in a military tradition of service to country that has spanned generations of Americans. When called on, men and women have put their civilian lives on hold to offer their time, their efforts and, in extreme cases, their lives in service to their fellow Americans.
Al Reynolds, 67, of Addison said he wasn’t totally aware of the war heating up in Southeast Asia when he entered the Marine Corps on Dec. 3, 1963.
“Me and a friend of mine, he kind of talked me into it,” Reynolds said of his decision to volunteer for the armed forces at age 18. They had a friend who was already in the Marine Corps, and Reynolds recalled hearing about the experiences of three uncles who served as Marines in World War II.
He went through months of basic training, then several more months in specialized guerrilla war training before being put aboard one of two troop transport ships that were among the first big wave of U.S. servicemen sent to Vietnam.
While Reynolds didn’t sign up thinking he would go to war, when it was time to go, he was ready.
“I bet if I’d been left behind for some reason it would have upset me a lot,” he said. “I’d been with the same troops for 10 months in Hawaii doing guerrilla warfare training, a lot of them since boot camp.”
It was a sense of duty to country and to those other Marines with whom he had forged a bond that he went into Vietnam. But that bond was strengthened exponentially was they got into battle. He admits there were some racial tensions in his unit while they were still stateside, but that wasn’t so much the case when they were in Vietnam.
“Was there a fellowship among Marines? Maybe,” he said. “Definitely more when we got into combat situations.
“When you need somebody to cover your back, no matter what color or shape they are … you count on them.”
For Vergennes resident Al Abair, who will turn 91 on Dec. 8, service was thrust upon him.
“Uncle Sam invited me,” he said. “I was drafted.”
It was the spring of 1944. The Navy let him delay entry until Jan. 18, 1945, after his second child was born.
“The child was two months old when I went,” Abair said.
Did it feel like as a draftee he drew the short straw?
“At the time, ya; but now I’m glad it happened,” Abair said. “At least I had a chance to serve the country.”
Nevertheless, entering the armed forces at the beginning of 1945 was scary.
“When I left I had the feeling that I probably wouldn’t have come back,” Abair said. He knew fellow seamen who didn’t come home.
John Lenk of Ferrisburgh joined the Navy in 1938 in part out of patriotism and in part just to work.
“It was a little of both,” said Lenk, who will celebrate his 94th birthday on Nov. 11. “Employment was probably down and at least you were going to get three meals a day.”
Working in the Navy promised to be not just a job, but also an adventure for a teenager from New York.
When the United States entered World War II, Lenk didn’t regret his decision to join the Navy, even though he knew it was likely he’d see action. And, boy, did he see action. Lenk served most of the war in the Pacific, from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to China, and from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to the Philippines.
It was while in the Philippines, in a flotilla sweeping mines so troops could be landed, that a Japanese kamikaze rammed his ship, and Lenk found himself and his shipmates floating in the Lingayen Gulf.
“It was warm water, come to think of it,” he joked about it nearly 67 years later. “It wasn’t that bad. After we got hit we just floated around until a ship picked us up.”
But his adventure in the high seas wasn’t over.
“The next morning I got torpedoed, the ship that picked us up,” he said, and he found himself floating in the gulf again. “They named me the ‘double dipper.’”
Time has put some distance between wartime veterans and the hardships they endured, but no one forgets.
“What I did I don’t wish that on anybody,” Abair said of his time on Okinawa and in Japan.
Reynolds recalled how the high temperatures during training in Hawaii were barely a warm-up for the trials of Vietnam.
“It was nothing compared to the heat over there (in Vietnam). And they have monsoons,” he said. “I spent 13 months living outside. Don’t ever ask me to go camping.
“It rained so hard you could drown.”
His specialized training prepared Reynolds for his job as flank guard for patrols of 120 Marines walking through the jungle. Reynolds would go off on his own through the bush to flush out the enemy.
“The whole idea is to find an ambush before they have a chance to do what they want, to do their damage,” he said. “I found the best way to do that was to make a whole lot of noise when you’re going through the woods.”
Didn’t that draw fire?
“No, they don’t know how many people are coming. So, I found a whole lot of sites where they had been set up, so I discouraged them, I guess. But I never really walked onto one where they hadn’t already left.”
Kittredge’s service in Iraq was different from the surveying he’d trained nine years for. He ended up in a unit that hunted roadside bombs.
“We joked about it, kept telling each other, wondering who was going to come home with all four limbs, some kind of macabre joke we’d have with ourselves,” he said.
“They prepared us for how bad our mission was going to be. It wasn’t as bad as they said it was going to be — it wasn’t any fun, I wouldn’t want to do it again.”
Some veterans have seen their time in the armed forces not just as service to their nation, but as a benefit to themselves.
“I have a better life, you made something out of yourself instead of pumping gas,” said Lenk, who spent 20 years in the Navy and retired as a chief petty officer. “Some people didn’t do nothing, didn’t improve themselves. I looked forward to making something of myself.”
Kittredge recalls returning from Iraq — a short formation of his unit in the airplane hangar in Burlington and they got to go home with their families.
“That was it, it was done. It was all behind us,” he said. “It was odd, we came back to my apartment in Vergennes. It was weird to drive down Shelburne Road, Route 7, and see everybody just going about their business. Nothing happened — a month ago I was … I was back in the groove a couple days later.”
Kittredge takes away not only the skills he learned that allowed him to start his own business last spring, Kittredge Land Surveying of Vergennes, but also boosting his natural confidence.
“My takeaway is having a drive to get things done; (knowing) you can adapt and get things done,” he said. “Especially after my experience in Iraq, no matter how bad you think you have it, it’s not that bad.”
Reynolds finds that nowadays people really appreciate it when he dresses in his uniform and takes part in the color guard at funerals and other important events.
Lenk and Abair, who both wear caps emblazoned with the names of their Navy ships, find that the general public seems to understand the sacrifices they made.
“Lately, a lot of people come up to me and say we appreciate what you did in the war,” Lenk said. “Lately, quite a few people have been coming up and shaking my hand.”
Reynolds said he finds a lot of his fellow Vietnam veterans don’t always value their service as much as they should. He thinks that may be one reason they don’t join the American Legion or other veterans’ organizations (all four of these vets are members of Post 14 of the Legion in Vergennes).
He also has a prescription for service and character building.
“I wish every kid coming out of high school had to spend the 16 weeks in boot camp that I did,” he said. “I think that would change a lot of attitudes.”