By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Service Recognized - Young Veterans Attend Lunch
Three young men who fought for this country in Iraq and Afghanistan were among the veterans honored at a luncheon hosted by the Royal Neighbors of America in Riverbank on Saturday. Now discharged, they were the first military veterans from those ongoing wars to attend the annual event and conspicuous by their youth among the aging old soldiers of former conflicts who gathered at the Community Center.

Sitting at one table with family and friends were Chase Purdom, 22, of Oakdale who served as an Army combat engineer for one tour of nine months in Iraq; T.J. Oliveira, 25, of Riverbank who was a motor transportation mechanic attached to the Marine Corps who also went to Iraq; and T.J.'s brother Travis Oliveira, 22, of Oakdale who served as an artilleryman with the Marine Corps in Afghanistan.

They did not sport the decorated forage caps popular with veteran groups like the America Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, but carried emblems on their clothing recalling their service.

"I handled route clearance, preparing the roads for heavy vehicles," said Purdom, who had the emblem of a soldier firing a mortar on his shirt that designated his base as Mosul, Iraq. A similar larger design on the back of his windbreaker carried the words, "In case of attack, don't panic but get low and stay there."

"It was super hot during the day and freezing cold at night," he commented of the climate in Iraq. "We slept in metal, tin buildings. We got hold of an air conditioner once. But it soon died."

Purdom said he was on the edge of several firefights but never involved. He carried a weapon, an automatic rifle, but the only time he fired it was in training to prove he could handle it. Purdom enlisted for three years and got out of the military last June.

T.J. Oliveira, who enlisted for four years and served several tours overseas, was charged with the repair and driving of a variety of vehicles.

Asked what he liked and what he didn't about life in Iraq, he said the only part he liked were his friends and the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers.

"My friends were everything," he said. "We volunteered together out of high school. I thought it a great opportunity. I was interested in fixing vehicles. And I got my start as a mechanic. I'm now employed as a diesel mechanic based in Ceres."

T.J. experienced being under fire, but only indirect fire from mortars "which were too close for comfort," he said.

The weather, he commented, was extreme.

"It's high desert country," he said. "During the winter, it's really cold at night but comfortable during the day. During the summer it's hot all the time. We got off the plane in the middle of the night and the temperature was over 100 degrees.

"But I'm glad I went. I learned a trade out of it. I walked away with something," he concluded.

T.J., like his brother Travis, grew up in Turlock but they both attended Oakdale High School. Of the three, only T.J. is married. His wife's name is Teresa and they have two little boys, Emanuel, 4 and Samuel, 1.

Travis's job as an artilleryman during a four-year enlistment involved firing howitzers and launching "semi-guided" rockets.

"We got mortared a couple of times. But I'm glad I went. I'd do it again. I enjoyed helping the people there, giving out food and water and candy for the kids," he said. "The weather was lousy. Up to 130 degrees during the day and not much cooler at night. Then there were sandstorms with the sand getting in your weapons and in your eyes, every nook and cranny of your body."

Now an Oakdale resident, Travis is going to school to become a personal trainer.

Travis introduced an older veteran sitting beside him as "my friend Bob." A resident of Oakdale, Bob, now 77, served in the Korean War on a minesweeper, the USS Constant.

Organizers of the luncheon asked for the two oldest veterans in the room to stand and be recognized, found they were both 92, and presented them each with a decorated forage cap.

Rich Washburn of Rockford, just east of Lodi, served with the Third Marine Corps Division in the Pacific during World War II and fought in the famous battles of Guadalcanal, Guam and Iwo Jima.

"I only survived the first two days at Iwo Jima. I was wounded in the right arm," he said "I spent eight months in the hospital while the doctors rebuilt my right shoulder from my ribs. Nowadays they do it with metal and screws and it would probably take only about three days."

Washburn's right arm still doesn't work too well and he shakes hands with his left.

The other 92-year-old was George Cunha of Modesto, who served on the USS Enterprise during World War II. He attended the lunch with his wife Flora who served in the Navy "Waves" and is also a veteran.

At an event that drew about 150 people, the Riverbank High Reserve Officers Training Corps color guard presented the flag, Blodgett Catering of Escalon cooked the meal and Ron Harris, a teacher for the Stanislaus Union School District, made a presentation in sound and pictures honoring US veterans throughout history.