Hank Stroncek's soft blue eyes wander into the distance, quickly sorting through the 58 years that have passed since his return from World War II. His weathered skin collects around his eyes and jaw, his silver hair hidden beneath a USA Olympics ballcap.
Age has had little effect on Stroncek's memory, which is as sharp as it was when he walked into a Minneapolis Coast Guard recruitment office at the age of 19 to volunteer for his country. It never crossed his mind not to enlist, even after the Navy turned him away because of a hernia.
"We were all into it," said Stroncek, 81, a Steamboat Springs resident. "All my buddies went into the Navy, Marines and Army. I wanted to go.
"What they did at Pearl Harbor made me mad. I was 19 and full of piss and vinegar."
Like so many other young Americans, Stroncek was shipped off to other parts of the globe to fight a war the world couldn't afford to lose. The ensuing casualties included some of his friends and shipmates -- and were it not for a torpedo that failed to discharge, Stroncek might not have made it home either.
"A lot of people think the Coast Guard didn't do too much during World War II, but we did," Stroncek said Thursday from the smoky backroom of Steamboat Springs Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4264, where he and other local military veterans gathered for an early Veterans Day breakfast.
More than 1,700 veterans make their homes in Routt County, and Thursday featured a number of local events honoring them and veterans everywhere for their service. For many, Veterans Day was an opportunity to reminisce with old friends and meet new ones. For Stroncek, the national holiday provided a chance to reflect on a tour of duty he hasn't talked about for some time.
Stationed with 250 other men aboard the USS Spencer, Stroncek's World War II tour included stints in the North Atlantic and Pacific theaters. He returned stateside in 1946 and married shortly thereafter.
"When I came back, all the glory stuff had already happened -- all the girl-kissing," Stroncek said. But missing the ticker-tape parades didn't bother him.
"It was the happiest day of my life when they ended that war," he said.
For years, Stroncek, like countless other veterans of World War II, traveled to reunions where he could meet with old friends and catch up on their lives. His attendance has been less frequent since his wife passed away several years ago. Then again, attendance at the reunions has been dwindling for years as America's "Greatest Generation" passes on.
"The last time I went, there were maybe six or seven guys from my ship," Stroncek said.
Routt County is full of veterans whose personal stories are intertwined with some of the more historic moments in the nation's history -- men like Al Ligons, a Doak Walker Care Center resident who was one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, and Albert Selk, a Doak Walker Care Center resident and Army veteran who landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He was later captured by German forces.
Ligons, Selk and eight other veterans who now call the Doak Walker Care Center home were visited by a group of local veterans Thursday morning.
Buck Buckland, an Air Force radio operator during the Korean War, said the visit was particularly special.
"These guys are the guys that made it all possible for us," Buckland said. "They're in their twilight years, and I think anything we can do for them is worthwhile."
Veterans Day is a time for remembering all Americans who served their country, regardless of years or conflicts, said Harold Sanders, a Wal-Mart customer service manager who celebrated the holiday in a replica 1874 Army Calvary uniform.
Sanders, a Vietnam veteran who served with the 1st Marine Air Wing during the Tet Offensive, said Veterans Day is about honoring all soldiers, from the colonial settlers who fought during the Revolutionary War to the men and women currently stationed at posts around the globe.
"They all had the same love for their country," Sanders said. "It honors all those who have fought. It doesn't matter when."
-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234
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