Last of a generation: Last Guardsman to serve in Vietnam retiringWhen Alan Peterson returned from serving in Vietnam in 1974, he wanted little to do with the military. Most people at home avoided talking about the war, and the only ones to welcome him back were his parents. He grew his hair and beard out and looked to make a career outside of the military, never thinking he’d be back.
By: By Marino Eccher, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
FARGO — When Alan Peterson returned from serving in Vietnam in 1974, he wanted little to do with the military. Most people at home avoided talking about the war, and the only ones to welcome him back were his parents.
He grew his hair and beard out and looked to make a career outside of the military, never thinking he’d be back.
“If you had told me 35 years ago I’d be doing this full time, I’d tell you you were crazy,” he said.
But you’d have been right. Today, Peterson, 60 — short hair, no beard and a master sergeant in the North Dakota National Guard — will retire after more than three decades as a Guardsman.
He’s the last Vietnam veteran to serve in the state’s Army and Air Guard. Two others retired from the Guard earlier this year.
Peterson will be honored during a ceremony at the Fargo Armed Forces Reserve Center. He said joining the Guard is one of the best choices he ever made.
“It’s given me a direction in life,” he said. “It’s kept me on the straight and narrow.”
The Swanburg, Minn., native has worked full time for the Guard since 1987, performing a range of maintenance and repair duties.
He got an early start in that field after entering the Navy in 1970, when he shipped out to the coast of Vietnam aboard the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier. There, he helped maintain and repair aircraft, also going ashore to do repair work there.
Peterson said the experience included some tough times, and when he got out, he didn’t stick around. He joined the Guard in 1979 at the suggestion of a friend who was a recruiter, but figured his career would be in coal mining in western North Dakota, where he landed a steady job.
But in 1987, he was laid off. He applied for a mechanic job with the Guard in Minot, but didn’t hear anything with his end date in the mine fast approaching.
“I found myself unemployed with my wife and three kids,” Peterson said. “I wasn’t really sure what my future was.”
His coal-mining job ended on a Friday. The following Monday, he got a phone call from the Guard, asking when he wanted to come to work. He moved to Minot, and eventually to Fargo. Today, he lives in West Fargo.
He was deployed in 2003 to Iraq to provide maintenance support for vehicles and equipment. He made the trip with his second-oldest son, also a mechanic in the Guard.
Peterson has never seen direct combat, but found himself in a few harrowing situations, especially driving through certain towns in Iraq with the sense that danger could be lurking around the corner.
His base there would sometimes fall under mortar fire, forcing troops to protect their tents using a method familiar to Fargo residents: sandbags.
For a while, Peterson said he was a little nervous about retirement, which is mandatory at his age. He even asked about a possible extension to stay on — “Don’t even think about it,” he was told.
Now, he’s looking forward to it. He’s not going to stop working — he has a truck-driving job lined up with a neighbor — and is looking forward to getting his weekends back rather than going through Guard drills. He also hopes to find more time to spend on his motorcycle.
Peterson said he’s enjoyed the diversity of the job, which has included several chances to travel around the world for training and a steady stream of new experiences.
“Overall, it’s been a great job,” he said. “I’m glad I did this.”
Marino Eccher is a Reporter
at The Forum of Fargo Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.