Vet’s service spanned from Vietnam to Iraq
HOWLAND — John C. Turner was so determined to keep himself out of the coal mines and brass factories of West Virginia that he joined the U.S. Army even before his draft card arrived, and stayed on to serve not only in Vietnam, but through the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Turner grew up in Masontown, W. Va., a tiny town near Morgantown. Turner said there was “nothing” there for him.
“We always played army when I was a kid — we used sticks for a rifle because we didn’t have rifles. I joined while I was still in high school. The day after my high school graduation, I got the draft notice. I went to the draft board and said, ‘I already enlisted,'” Turner said. “I left a few days later.”
His father worked in the brass factory, now gone, and other family members worked in the coal mines.
“In the brass factory, my dad walked in white and walked out green because of the brass. A lot of guys got sick. There were no OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) standards then. My dad was on a sand belt. He would practically have to take a Wisk (laundry detergent) bath to get that stuff off him,” Turner said.
Turner’s father died of cancer and so did many others he knew that worked in the mines and factory.
While Turner started in the U.S. Army, he went on to serve in the U.S. Army Reserve, West Virginia Army National Guard, U.S. Air Force Reserve, Pennsylvania Air National Guard and the U.S. Navy Reserve.
On his first night in Vietnam, after landing in Cam Rahn Bay, his company took mortar fire.
“You never saw so many young men trying to find a bunker, which I did. Nobody got hurt, but there were a lot of scared young men,” Turner said.
While patrolling Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, Turner often worked with the Canh sat, the Vietnamese police force. The men traded uniforms for photos and exchanged other memorabilia.
The people living in the city were poor, Turner said.
“They ate whatever we gave them. And they went through our garbage,” Turner said.
He may have started his stint patrolling with C Company in the 716th Military Police Battalion as a military police officer, but by the time he was in Iraq, he was showing the younger men and women the ropes.
“We had to take care of the young ones. Some had never left West Virginia. We told them to listen to the orders they were given, listen to their elders, to watch their heads and watch their surroundings,” Turner said.
Turner first supported operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield stateside with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard and went in 2003 to Iraq with his unit in the West Virginia Army National Guard.
He moved to Trumbull County with his wife in 1987 and took a job at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station. He also worked as a police officer with the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. He retired in 2015.
Turner, father of two daughters, plans to attend an Aug. 30 to Sept. 2 reunion in Minnesota for veterans of Vietnam.