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From Korea to Iraq: Veterans Share Experiences of War at Braintree High

Braintree veterans spoke to students at the high school on Monday.

When Braintree police officer Peter Gillis was in high school, he pictured a military veteran as an "old guy."

A decade of National Guard service and two wars later, both his and the country's understanding of veterans has transformed considerably.

"Because of what happened in the world, it's changed the whole scope of veterans," Gillis told students in history teacher Rick Flanagan's class at Braintree High School.

Gillis, an Iraq War veteran, joined a group of former Braintree service members on Monday who shared stories about their military experience in honor of Veterans Day on Nov. 11. Their service ranged from Korea and Vietnam to the Gulf War and the two most recent forays into the Middle East.

Three days after graduating from BHS in 2001, Gillis started basic training for the Army Reserves, thinking he would put in his one weekend a month and two weeks a year and never be deployed.

He enrolled at UMass Boston after training and began studying criminal justice. Then one day his phone rang, alerting Gillis he was going overseas. With time only to withdraw from college, sign legal documents and say goodbye to his parents, "I basically vanished," he said.

Launching from Kuwait in February 2003, Gillis was among the first U.S. soldiers into Iraq a month later. He quickly had to adapt to 130-degree temperatures, old-fashioned mail that came months late and wild animals roaming the palace where he slept.

Gillis was a navigator for his team, which spent much of its time criss-crossing Baghdad setting up Iraqi police departments and interrogating suspected terrorists. He lost three friends during his year and a half tour, and the aftermath of those deaths was another shock to normalcy.

"There is no funeral, no wake, you just wake up the next day and fight," Gillis said. "There was no time to be sad."

Still, Gillis said he would recommend military service to students today. "It made me grow up overnight."

Marine and Army veteran John Thompson also spoke highly of his service, both at the tail-end of the Korean War and as a civil service officer during Vietnam.

Military families received better food during rationing, he said, and service members learned skills they would not have been able to otherwise. Back in the 1950s, when Thompson joined, military service was also a normal way of life, such as higher education today.

"The military was a normal expectation," he said.

In Korea, Thompson was a radio operator, serving after major combat operations had ended. He used the GI Bill to become the first member of his family to graduate from college and then afterward joined the Army and went to Vietnam.

Thompson also told students about what it was like during the 1950s and 60s. He showed them an old rotary-style phone, a slide rule, carbon paper and $2 bills and 50-cent pieces that have since left circulation.

Television especially was much different back then, Thompson said, featuring main characters as factory workers and bus drivers. Today shows focus heavily on medicine, law and law enforcement – areas that require education.

"You seldom see any of the working people as the star of the shows," he said.

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