FARGO, N.D. - While most North Dakota Guard members are war veterans, one holds a special distinction: He's the last serving combat Vietnam War veteran in the North Dakota National Guard.
When Army Master Sgt. Alan K. Peterson, of West Fargo, N.D., retired on Wednesday, he ended an era in both the Army and Air National Guard in the state. There's believed to be only one remaining Vietnam vet nationwide in the Air Force, and while it's unknown, there are presumably very few left in the Army.
"Throughout his decades-long military career, Master Sgt. Peterson served this state and nation with honor and distinction, whether assisting his fellow citizens here at home or defending this great country in foreign lands," said Gov. Jack Dalrymple.
"His retirement marks the end of an era for the North Dakota National Guard, bringing to a close the exemplary service and leadership of a generation of patriots who served in the Vietnam War. We are grateful to Master Sgt. Peterson and all of our Vietnam veterans for their noble and courageous service."
During the ceremony, Peterson received the federal Meritorious Service Medal and North Dakota Legion of Merit, as well as several certificates, a commemorative musket, plaques, a host of letters wishing him well and a cased U.S. flag. His wife, Christie, also received a framed certificate of appreciation in honor of her support during her husband's decades-long military career.
"Thank you for sharing Al with us all of these years," Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk , adjutant general, said to Peterson's family during Wednesday's retirement ceremony at the Fargo Armed Forces Reserve Center. "As I said to Christie, it's the family that really has the tough job when our Soldiers are called to war and called to duty."
After having seen the photos and trinkets his uncle brought back from his travels with the Navy, Peterson enlisted in the service's delayed entry program shortly before graduating from Pine River, Minn., High School in 1970.
The war in Vietnam was well under way by then, with involvement peaking the year prior with a half-million U.S. military personnel serving there. On April 28, 1971 - barely a year after graduating high school - Peterson found himself involved in the war, as well.
He first headed to the Philippines to fulfill a 90-day "mess cooking" stint - similar to the Army's KP, or "kitchen patrol" - required for those ranked E-3 and below. After 60 days, he was attached to a ship and itching to get up top.
"I wanted to get on the flight deck - little extra money, you got hazardous duty pay and you got to work in the open air, which I enjoyed. I didn't have enough seniority to do that," he says.
He stayed in the airframes division for the length of that first, short cruise before an opportunity to apply for a plane captain spot in a line division presented itself. He got the job and was promoted to an E-4, or petty officer third class, which is a noncommissioned officer in the Navy. That made him second in charge in a squadron of 10 that managed 14 aircraft. In this role, he served on two additional cruises, working on the USS Kitty Hawk CVA-63.
Similar to a crew chief in the Army and Air Force, a plane captain in the Navy maintains and cleans the aircraft, monitors the work that's done on it, helps the pilot into the cockpit, and conducts a preflight turnaround for the aircraft. Peterson also did maintenance turnarounds, which allowed him to sit in the aircraft while it was tied to the deck and operate the controls while it was being worked on.
His time on the ship doing 30- to 40-day stints in the Gulf of Tonkin off of the Vietnam coast would be limited, though. Soon, Peterson was part of a group of 15 or so sent to shore in July 1972. For the next eight months, he stayed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside of Da Nang replacing tailhooks, patching holes and repairing landing gear on aircraft that couldn't be recovered by the carrier ships.
"The amenities we have now days for creature comfort weren't there at that time," he says of his accommodations near Da Nang. "Any correspondence I had back home was letters, and usually that was about a two-week turnaround before I got one back."
The workdays on land were shorter than the 14- to 16-hour shifts at sea, though. Peterson worked dawn to dusk with the open-air maintenance work ceasing at dark to prevent becoming a lighted target at night.
"When I look back at it, it was fun to get off the ship," Peterson says. "Life on the ship was pretty monotonous after a fashion. Our close-circuit TVs were limited to what you could watch and there wasn't many of those you could watch … so you read, laid in your rack, read books, (read) whatever you could get your hands on, walk around, actually run on the flight deck and do PT (physical training), too, to take up your time. Sleep. That's about it."
The berthing compartment where he slept differed greatly from the damp huts near Da Nang that were sunken 3-4 feet into the ground with hurricane fans blowing through at night. Other than the climate and extra amenities, his living conditions in the Iraq War three decades later would prove similar.
Navy to Army
When Peterson's Navy stint concluded, the young war veteran did much the same as his peers in the 1970s: grew his hair long and sprouted a beard. By the end of the era, in February 1979, he was ready to don the uniform again, though.
"I still had a beard and long hair, and they told me, ‘You know, you're going to have to cut that off.' I guess it was time for a change," he says.
He started as a combat engineer with the North Dakota Army National Guard's unit in Hazen, N.D., while working in a coal mine in the area. His first platoon leader, Dennis Jacobson, still serves with the North Dakota National Guard, but now has two stars on his uniform.
After seven years as an engineer and traditional Guardsman, Peterson switched back into a maintenance job, but life outside of the Guard took a major downturn. The house he grew up in was engulfed in a fire, claiming his parents' lives. Plus, work in the coal mine had slowed, and in December 1986 he received a 30-day notice for being laid off.
"That was a pretty tough year for me. I had a wife and three kids to take care of. What am I going to do?"
He drilled the weekend he received the layoff notice and saw a job posting for a maintenance position in Minot. He had his application submitted in a matter of days and before long embarked on a full-time career for the N.D. Guard, first in the Minot shop and later at the Fargo shop, from which he retired on Wednesday.
In the years in between, he shared his knowledge as a maintenance supervisor, deployed to Iraq with the 142nd Engineer Combat Battalion, and developed a unique connection with his middle son, Joshua, who also deployed with him to Iraq in the same maintenance section.
"When I look back, (Vietnam) kind of set me up for the deployment to Iraq and what I experienced over there," he says.
The one major difference? Coming home.
"(My son and I) sat together on the ride back and talked about the year we were gone and things that happened and how we would react. … It's quite a different feeling when you get off the plane and all those people are lined up to greet you. It's a lot to take in. … It wasn't the same back during Vietnam. There was nobody. When I flew back and got out, it was just my parents there to greet me."
Now, he's looking back at both deployments along with a decades-long military career and pondering how he has already turned the mandatory retirement age of 60.
"Here now it's my turn (to retire), and I say, ‘Wow, where did all those years go?'
"I think the Guard for me has been a good choice. It has given me a direction in life and supported me quite well. I look back all the experiences that I have had and all the people that have either worked with or just crossed paths, and I feel it was well worth it."