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The bonds of bootcamp defy decades, generations and wars




Marine corps veteran Aaron Ward (left) served in Iraq and army veteran Don Ray (right) served in Vietnam.
Marine corps veteran Aaron Ward (left) served in Iraq and army veteran Don Ray (right) served in Vietnam.
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As America observes Veterans Day, Take Two brought together two veterans of different generations to share their experiences with one another.  

Aaron Ward, 28, goes by Ward because he's still not used to being called by his first name.

Ward only left the Marine Corps Reserves just a few weeks ago. A veteran of the Iraq War, Ward has a warm smile and impeccable manners.

Ward sat down to meet face-to-face with 68-year-old Don Ray.

Ray is a Vietnam War who served 40 years before Ward entered the military. The Army veteran mostly travels with his German Shepherd Fritz: the Sassy Service Dog, which he named after the dog he served alongside in Vietnam. 

Having never met before, Ward and Ray got acquainted. 

Aaron Ward in combat fatigues.
Aaron Ward in combat fatigues.
Courtesy of Aaron Ward

Aaron Ward: I was in the Marine Corps from 2007 to the 26th of October. I got out as a sergeant at about eleven years.

Some of it active time, the majority in the reserves. I actually enlisted in the reserves and I checked in my unit and they were like, hey, we’re going to Iraq. And I was like, wait, one weekend a month, right?  

Ray laughed along with Ward. They shared a dry sense of humor as they quickly found parallels in their time in the military. 

Fritz in 1968 at the Soc Trang Army Airfield in IV Corps near Soc Trang, below the Mekong Delta.
Fritz in 1968 at the Soc Trang Army Airfield in IV Corps near Soc Trang, below the Mekong Delta.
Don Ray

Don Ray: I was Army ‘67 to ‘70 and I was in Vietnam ‘68 and ‘69 as a dog handler.

Most of the time I spent at a little place way down the Mekong Delta called Sóc Trăng at a little target airfield they used to call "mortar alley." They’d always said that if you can hear the whistling of it coming down, you’re not going to survive.

I actually had one where I heard that and I thought, I’m dead. It hit very, very close, but it was soft dirt and I guess that’s all that saved me. I came out at a sergeant as well.

Ward echoed in agreement, remembering the sensation of bracing himself after hearing someone holler, “Incoming!” 

Ward and Ray seemed to understand a lot about one another. It only took a few moments before the two began to instinctually finish one another's sentences. 

Their connection was palpable despite having enlisted under different circumstances. 

Aaron Ward: My decision, like a lot of guys from my era, was 9/11. Watching all that happen, I think I was about 7th grade. That’s a very real moment.

As soon as that happened I was like, cool, I’m set. That’s where I’m going after high school. I enlisted at at 17. Went to bootcamp 10 days after I turned 18.

Don Ray: I graduated from Burbank High in ‘67 and decided to join the Air Force. I was flipping burgers at the local burger place and one of my high school buddies came up wearing army fatigues. He said, oh no, you can’t join the Air Force. The Army, you get to pick your job – it’s only three years.

So he took me down to the recruiter and signed me up. My motivation was to get out of the house from my stepfather. A lot of people did that thinking you were going to a better place.

And the sad part was that my really good friend who had enlisted me – my mother sent me the hardest letter in the world just a couple months after I got to Vietnam saying that he had died there. But you know what that's like. 

Ward and Ray paused briefly in quiet acknowledgment. 

Turning home from war shared commonalities for Ward and Ray but they were greeted on American soil very differently. 

Don Ray: A friend was going to school at UC Berkeley and I was scared because all I had seen from the news while I’m in Vietnam is all the protests and the burning down the R.O.T.C. buildings.

I pictured every square foot of every school, in every state, having protesters and hating us veterans and soldiers.

I walked around with this short hair in Berkeley ... you can feel the M16 in your hand, that feel that you never forget.

There was one of those backfires and I did go to the ground and it was embarrassing as hell.

Aaron Ward: I came back August 2009. It was interesting actually flying out to Iraq because I flew out of March Air Force base. I was born and raised in Riverside.

You know, you watch the states leave underneath you but like, I could actually see my house, my grandparents’ house…and I was like, oh man.

And then coming home, I distinctly remember just being extremely happy to be home. Then the next day I woke up and I was like where’s my weapon?

I felt pretty alone. All of the sudden I was by myself.

You have social media and all that, but it’s not the same as being with your buddies who are sleeping three feet away from you.

I’m still trying to grapple with, what do I do now? I spent my whole adult life carrying a pack and a rifle, and now it’s like, what’s next?

Ward and Ray both find comfort in the camaraderie they find in the company of other veterans. 

Aaron Ward: I still am in contact with a lot of my buddies that I served with over the years. But I was also Senior Vice Commander at my V.F.W. post. It was fun getting to know these guys.

For me it was interesting because of how much in common we have. "I don’t know you right there, but we’re here having a pretty decent banter."

There’s this Marine phrase, "We went to bootcamp together but at different times."

We have that commonality. Anytime there’s a veteran that I know of in need, I’m more than willing to drop whatever I was going to do.

Don Ray: Very rarely did Vietnam soldiers or marines go over there as a group.

We went over as individuals on an airliner. So, you don’t make the attachments.

I don’t have a Vietnam vet buddy that I served with anywhere. I’m in touch with nobody.

While Ray isn't connected to those he served directly with, he still interacts with other veterans a few times a week. 

Don Ray: I do and it’s thanks to the V.A. because when I finally learned what P.T.S.D. was, it was 20 years after I got back. It took me about five years to agree to go into a group. I just didn’t want to be in there with all those angry veterans and all that stuff.

Now, I’ve been going to a group for about nine years and it’s the safest place in the world to be. Things that they would never be able to tell anybody else about, they’ll share with us.

It’s the one time when I feel someone’s got my back. It’s remarkable the way veterans will look out for other veterans. 

Ward and Ray shared some wisdom, but made sure to wish one another and Take Two listeners a happy Veterans Day. 

Aaron Ward: To all the veterans, happy Veterans Day, go out and spend time with each other. Go visit those cemeteries, see your boys.

I like to leave a beer or two and just spend some time with my guys who are currently pulling guard duty somewhere else.

Don Ray: It’s a wonderful opportunity to get to talk with you because we have so much in common already.

That’s the brotherhood that veterans have and I think that’s what Veterans Day is about.

To listen to the whole conversation, click on the media player above.