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Generations of veterans | A New Chapter

FOX43 spoke to veterans who have served throughout the years about their experience on active duty and after returning home.

PENNSYLVANIA, USA — FOX43 is highlighting local veterans and their lives after service in honor of Veteran's Day on Friday, Nov. 11.

Photojournalist Ryan Rimby spoke with veterans who have served throughout the years about their experience on active duty and after returning home.

Veterans Bill Balabanow, Tommy Dunston and Sean Messett served over a more than 60-year span of American history.

Balabanow, a Lancaster resident, joined the Merchant Marines in 1944, delivering necessary supplies to aid soldiers on the front lines during WWII.

"The Army and the Navy stormed the beaches and we stormed them right after that, bringing them the food and the ammunitions," Balabanow recalled. "We carried 95% of the goods."

Dunston was one of those soldiers in the middle of the battlefield—21 years later. He was drafted in 1965 and fought in Vietnam.

"We were in a bad area," Dunston said. "We had been there before, and we got hit with rockets and mortars, and then we got hit with a ground attack and they were coming after us pretty heavy all night long—to the point I was point blank range with a 105 Howitzer—so it was a pretty rough night but I don't regret one bit of it."

War on Terror veteran Messett, of Hanover, fought a different kind of battle than his predecessors. He joined the Army in 2008, right after college. 

"Daily fire fights, daily IEDs, you don't really know who is the enemy within the area of operation you're operating in because they blend in so well, so that is just another element of struggle," the Purple Heart recipient said. "It's not like back in the day when here is the line, we know you're on that side, we're on this side, and we're gonna battle it out. Now it's just—they walk amongst you and when they're ready to attack they'll attack."

The three veterans say war has shaped them into the men they are today.

"This is my purple heart," Messett said. "It's a weird feeling because you're proud of it, but you're also—as they say—it's like the enemy's combat ribbon, they gotcha. Very lucky and very grateful to walk away from that. Walk away from that with all my limbs and still have my life."

All three returned from combat alive, but they weren't always welcomed back home.

"I came home thirty days after getting overrun, with the mentality of 'this is going to be it, I did it,'" Dunston said. "'I'm going to be the proud person from my hometown, little hometown USA, and I'm going to be in the parade and I'm going to be able to go to the VFW and the American Legion,' and I was dead wrong."

"As a matter of fact, they really were negative," Balabanow said. "Many people believed in that area that we were draft dodgers. We weren't draft dodgers. We fought to get in and then fought to stay in, so we wanted to do our part and we did." 

Balabanow and his fellow Marines did eventually receive the recognition they deserve.

"Last year, the U.S. Merchant Marines of World War II were awarded Congressional Gold Medals down in Washington," Balabanow said.

These medals are the "highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions by individuals or institutions."

Despite the horrors of war and lackluster homecomings, the veterans say they don't regret serving their country.

"This is America, this is where we were born and trained, this is it, and I'm very proud of this country no matter what goes on," Dunston said. "We've gotten this far, and the country has always held its own."

The servicemembers will carry their experiences with them for the rest of their lives.

"Veterans Day is a day to celebrate the men and women in uniform today, but Veterans Day and Memorial Day always mesh, because every day is Memorial Day, every day is Veterans Day for us, as we remember these guys who gave everything for this country," Messett said.

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