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PORTAGE | Louis Stanko describes his job in Vietnam as "one of the guys that mess around with the bombs."

More technically, Stanko, 68, served in aviation ordnance with the U.S. Marine Corps.

Stanko, a Pennsylvania native, joined the Corps in 1966. He'd graduated from high school and was working at U.S. Steel.

"I knew Uncle Sam was coming after me," he said, deciding to join the Marines because his stepfather — who he refers to as his "second dad" — was a Marine during World War II.

"I enlisted. I knew I didn't want to be what they called grunts," he said, adding he enlisted under the aviation guarantee program. The program sent him to school in Jacksonville, Fla. He then headed to Beauford, S.C.  before being shipped to Vietnam in April 1968 and landing at Chu Lai Air Base.

"I was stationed right on the coast, about 60 miles south of Da Nang," he said. 

When he arrived, he recalled, it was calm. He remembers wondering, "Nothing's happening. What's the big deal?"

Then he went to bed.

"I was sleeping all nice and peaceful. That night all heck broke loose. They dropped a bomb in the living area," said Stanko. It was around 2 a.m., and "my legs were going like a couple hundred miles an hour, but I wasn't moving."

Stanko learned "Charlie," the enemy, was harassment bombing the base. He said it continued, dropping a bomb or two in the middle of the night.

He and others would take to underground bunkers when the bombing started. One night, he recalled, two rockets hit close. It wasn't until morning when he saw how close. A piece of shrapnel was lodged in a three-quarters inch thick piece of plywood. The other side of the plywood was his bunk.

For his 18 months in country, Stanko worked on loading bombs onto A4 Skyhawk aircraft.

He was suppose to leave Vietnam in May 1969, but in March, he signed extension papers, promising to stay until November.

"Two days after I signed the papers, it was March 29, 1969," Stanko said, adding that's when they began to bomb the base for a reason beyond harassment.

"The first rocket came in and hit our flight line. Some of our aircraft took direct hits. They tried to hit our fuel lines, our bomb pits, but they didn't," he said.

"That was probably the worst day of my tour over there," he said.

When his tour ended that November, he was warned the atmosphere wasn't so welcoming for servicemen coming home.

"When I came home, everyone was against the war in Vietnam. They were burning their draft cards and so forth," he said, adding officers recommended they change into civilian clothes before they hit the states.

"I told them ain't no way I'm taking this uniform off," said Stanko. He said he didn't have any problems with anyone when he returned home.

Stanko said his experience taught him that no one's invincible.

"It basically opens your eyes that you are not invincible. When you are young, strong, you think you are invincible. You get over there, and you learn different," he said.

Once home and out of the Marines, Stanko ended up in Gary, where an uncle worked for U.S. Steel. The steelmaker credited his time in the Marines as time at the mill. He worked for the company 38 years before retiring in 2003.

He and his wife, Elaine, had two children.

Stanko said it was a reunion with Vietnam veterans that got him interested in being a service officer. He went to school and in 2006 was hired by Porter County.

Stanko praised Jim Lynch for making the office what it is today and pushing for additional services for veterans.

"He saw we were still buried in claims, and Jim went to the County Council, and they agreed to hire a third officer. He built the office up to what it is today," Stanko said of Lynch, who died in 2013.

As a service officer, Stanko said he helps other veterans filling out paperwork, getting into the VA health system and receiving benefits to which they are entitled.

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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly 40 years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.