North Albany resident Eric Czernowski credits his youth in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood with saving his life in Vietnam.
“I grew up having to fight my way everywhere I went,” he said. “Also, all of my relatives and everyone we knew had served in World War II or Korea. My mom lived in France and transported messages as part of the resistance in front of the Germans. I just wasn’t afraid.”
The 70-year-old Czernowski will be among 18 Linn County and six Benton County residents taking part in a South Willamette Valley Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., this weekend. He saw some of the monuments 30 years ago, but is looking forward to the newer memorials, even though he dislikes flying and crowds.
At 16, he moved to West Palm Beach, Florida, graduating from high school in 1966. He took some classes at Palm Beach Junior College and then figured that if he enlisted in the military, he could have some say in his future, rather than being drafted.
“I signed up to be an Army medic, even though it meant I would have to serve three years instead of two,” Czernowski said. “I never had two nickels to rub together, and I had grown up watching World War II movies and listening to war stories from my dad and all of his friends.”
Czernowski was injured during training, which slowed his deployment to Vietnam. He arrived in country on April 6, 1968, and was stationed with the 4th Infantry Division near the Cambodian border. This division, he'll proudly tell you, was the first to land on D-Day in 1944 and also captured Saddam Hussein in 2003.
He served exactly one year — from April 6, 1968, to April 6, 1969 — a span that included some harrowing experiences.
“I went missing at one time along the Cambodian border,” Czernowski said. “I had just been assigned to a recon platoon. We were ambushed and only three of us survived. We had to find our way back, and it wasn’t easy.”
Czernowski also earned a Silver Star on what he calls his “Alive Day": May 25, 1968, as he treated an artillery unit mostly for malaria and leech bites.
“That night, we were overrun, and I had to go hand-to-hand with three enemies,” he said. “I had just started an IV in a soldier when they jumped us. I did not have a gun and one of them stabbed me in the arm with a bayonet.”
Czernowski — then all of 19 years old, 6-foot-3 and about 230 pounds — recalled, “I took all three of them out with my bare hands."
He earned the first of two Purple Hearts that night. The second came after he was wounded with shrapnel in the neck and leg.
Thanks to the internet, several soldiers Czernowski treated 50 years ago have looked him up.
“I have one guy in Alaska who calls me every month,” he said.
The best part of Czernowski's Vietnam experience was being able to work closely with mountain villagers.
“It was the highlight of my year in country,” he said. “They are wonderful people.”
Among his memorabilia, Czernowski is proud of photos showing him riding a water buffalo.
“Bet you’ve never interviewed someone else who has done that,” he said with a laugh.
After his discharge, Czernowski returned to Florida, where he attended the University of Florida. When a friend invited him to visit Oregon, he knew this was where he wanted to live. He moved in 1973.
He graduated from Oregon State in 1976 and began working in the wood products industry in the Roseburg area. He later landed a job as mail carrier for 17 years, at one time living about 30 miles upriver near Roseburg.
“It was beautiful,” Czernowski said.
For several years he also served in the Army National Guard and Reserve.
“I really enjoyed that,” he said. “We got to go to Alaska a couple times. I was a medical platoon sergeant.”
Along the line, Czernowski — who, remember, doesn’t like crowds — found a hidden talent. He tried out for the drama club at Umpqua Community College and to his amazement, landed a lead role in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Since then, he's appeared at Albany Civic Theater, Linn-Benton Community College and the Majestic. He estimates he's done about 40 shows in all.
“I like the classics the best,” he said.
Czernowski is awaiting a kidney transplant and undergoes dialysis three times per week. He’s had one hip replaced and is headed for another. When his health was better, Czernowski enjoyed fishing and taking walks with his pets, a Cairn terrier and a Yorkie.
“I belong to several veterans groups, but I don’t like politics,” Czernowski said. “I’m just a worker bee. Let me know what needs done and I’ll do it.”
“I’m ready, he’s ready and I’m excited for him,” Czernowski's wife, Jeannie, said of the upcoming trip.
This will be the 15th Honor Flight from Linn and Benton counties. It will include 63 veterans: one from WWII, eight from the Korean War and 54 from the Vietnam War. Some 593 veterans have participated at no cost in a South Willamette Valley Honor Flight since its 2012 inception. Each veteran has an escort. The program is paid for through donations, according to director Ed Bock.
The group travels by bus to the Holiday Inn in Portland for a 6 p.m. dinner today, followed by guardian training and a team leader meeting.
The Alaska Airlines flight takes off at 9:45 a.m. Friday. Saturday includes visits to service memorials and concludes with dinner at the Elks Lodge. The veterans will tour the Air and Space Museum and Arlington National Cemetery before heading back to Portland at 5:30 p.m. Sunday.
To learn more, or to donate to the South Willamette Honor Flight program, visit swvhonorflight.org.