‘Shake their hand and thank them’

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U.S. Army SPC5 (Specialist) Peter Katz, who served in many locations during his tenure in the Army, was the guest speaker Saturday evening during the annual Veterans Day program presented by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Garden Grove.

Katz first served state-side at Fort Ord, then went on to Benjamin Harrison, Ind; Ft. Stewart, Ga; Ft. McClellan, Ala; Ft. Lewis, Wash; in the Eighth Armyin Korea; in Vietnam and then back to Korea before returning to the United States for an honorable discharge.

U.S. Army SPC5 (Specialist) Peter Katz, who served in many locations during his tenure in the Army, was the guest speaker Saturday evening during the annual Veterans Day program presented by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Garden Grove.

Katz first served state-side at Fort Ord, then went on to Benjamin Harrison, Ind; Ft. Stewart, Ga; Ft. McClellan, Ala; Ft. Lewis, Wash; in the Eighth Armyin Korea; in Vietnam and then back to Korea before returning to the United States for an honorable discharge.

"I was born in Sleepy Hallow, N.Y.(the place of the headless horseman) and attended high school in Queens New York," said Katz. "The very day I graduated from high school, I hitch-hiked to California where I got a job at a post office for six months. When I was 19, I was drafted. I had purchased a Mustang Mach I while in the service in Savannah, Georgia and was given 48-hours to get myself from Ft. Stewart Georgia to the State of Washington."

Katz explained that he was never on the front lines while serving in the military. Graduating third in his military class, he was chosen to attend the NCO (Non-Commissioned Officers) academy at Ft. McClellan Ala., graduating as a finance officer.

"I was not in combat but in finance and over burials overseeing 28 military funerals," he said. "I remember vividly things that happened behind the scenes that people don't even know about."

Katz said he never understood why his father, who served in WWII, never talked about the war.

"My father came back in 1945 without a scratch and never talked about the war and I never understood why until I went into the service myself," Katz said.

He shared that today, it takes 275 soldiers to back-up one soldier.

"It's a team effort, with the planes, food and medics who fix up the wounded," he said. "When death stares you in the face, I had the faith to deal with the post-traumatic stress."

Katz was a body escort. "It's not easy and haunts me to this day."

He shared that on one such flight from Oakland to Atlanta, he paid for an empty seat, so the casket could be flown on the airplane but when he arrived at his destination, the casket (with the body of the serviceman) was missing.

"Was it a closed casket?" Asked his superior. Yes, it had been a closed casket.

"Then go ahead with the funeral and we'll find the body," he was told.

During an old-fashioned burial, Katz said a mother jumped into the grave to be with her son and when presented the triangle-folded flag for her son's service, the mother grabbed the folded-flag, draped it on Katz's head and began beating him in the chest, screaming, "You killed my son."

"I see her face today," Katz said.

On one occasion, in the south, the bugler who was to play "Taps" was African-American man and the family would not accept that. Katz had to find a white person who could play "Taps."

"A near-death experience made me know there is a higher reason for living," Katz said. "Standing on the  Pan Monjun Bridge between South and North Korea, I asked God, 'Why am I here?' The war was going on, plus other movements including the assassination of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy. My job was to get money to the soldiers in Vietnam and Korea during the turmoil."

Then recently speaking to the Korean mayor of Irvine, he knew the reason he'd been in Korea was so that people like the mayor could come to America and live in freedom.

That mayor helped Katz get a 5-0 vote instead of the previous 2-3 vote for the Veterans Cemetery in South County at the Great Park (former U.S. Marine Corps Station).

Katz said the U.S. printed money in different colors all the time so people couldn't steal the money and disguised the money in bags of rice, McDonald's paper bags and grocery bags.

"Vietnam was mostly farmers and there was a music and glory in the midst of the devastation. There were 690,000 troops in the first Gulf War, of whom one-half have now passed away, mostly from plutonium poisoning that was used in the U.S. shells that were later cleaned up," Katz said. "There's a lot of work to be done in the Vietnam community; there is a soul in soldiers – war is hell. We honor those who win, and the Vietnam vets were not honored for many years."

Katz said we tend to lose our sense of history. He said when he was in Vietnam and Korea, there weren't any paved roads but now South Korea is a bustling city.

"There is a heavy price to be paid for in-action; there is something to be said for standing vigil; we have to defend freedom and honor those who serve," he said. "Only 1 percent of Americans serve the other 99 percent of the people.

"When you see a veteran, they are still struggling with their demons. Shake their hand and thank them," Katz said, saying that, "Soldiers talk to soldiers because others don't understand."

"You see such horror in war, but my faith has kept me reaching out to give back to the community and I'm still working on my demons," he said.

Katz is serving on the board of the new Veterans Cemetery at the Great Park in South County and is the vice president of the Vietnam War Museum in Garden Grove at Trask and Harbor.

LDS Stake President Jeff Trader shared a story of  his uncle Skeeter, who served in Vietnam as a Navy Seal.

"He was different but was always kind to me," said Trader. "He had a salty language and a drinking problem even though he was a successful businessman and provided for his family…

My dad told me Skeeter had to do unspeakable things in Vietnam to save his and his fellow soldiers' lives. Skeeter never talked about his experiences to me but I knew they had engraved an indelible scar on his heart.

"As a religious leader in this community, I petition our Heavenly Father to bless our good veterans with peace and comfort and the strength to overcome the devastation of war," added Trader. "Bless them with caring families and friends who can comfort and soothe their souls and help them find gainful employment and accomplishment and bless them to know of God's love for them."

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