Trafford veteran: War memories a bond with his 'brothers,' their families
World War II turned Stephen Vukson and the men he served with into a band of brothers. The decades since have transformed them into honorary uncles to the children and grandchildren of comrades.
As a member of the Army's 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion from 1942 to 1945, Vukson formed a close bond with his fellow soldiers.
"We all got along like a family. We never had arguments," said Vukson, 89. "Everybody just worked together. I try to stay in touch with some of them and with their families, because we were so close."
The Trafford veteran sees his old friends during the battalion's annual reunion and historical landmark tour.
This year, the reunion was held in Baltimore in June, and a visit to the National World War II Memorial in Washington turned out to be especially memorable for Vukson and his family.
During a ceremony at the memorial, current members of the 83rd Battalion surprised Vukson by presenting him with the Honorable Order of the Dragon Award. The Chemical Corps Regimental Association gives the award to "Dragon Soldiers" who demonstrate integrity, morality and professional competence throughout their lives. It is the highest honor the association gives.
Vukson said he'd heard of the award, but in the 38 reunions the 83rd Battalion has held, he does not know of anyone else who received it. He said he didn't realize how prestigious it was until after he read more about it.
"It was a surprise to begin with, and since there's not too many passed out, I was really honored," he said.
Vukson's daughter, Sandy Babich, said their family didn't know Vukson was getting the award until the ceremony began.
Babich said she noticed members of other families wiping tears away during the ceremony. She said families often view Vukson and other veterans as representatives of loved ones who have died.
"A lot of the children my age come up and ask about their fathers or want to know if he served with them," Babich said. "It's a real connection. They feel a link to their fathers, who are gone, through him."
While at the reunion, Vukson ran into one woman who he hadn't seen since she was a child. He was a close friend to her father, who died last year, and the woman saw Vukson as an important source of family history.
"She asked me a million questions about her father and wrote down everything I said," Vukson said. "It means a lot."
Back in time
In 1942, Vukson didn't imagine himself standing at a reunion and talking to his friend's families.
He said that was a landmark year for him, because within weeks he turned 21, moved from Blairsville to Trafford and was drafted into the Army.
The 83rd Battalion saw 508 days of combat duty in its two-and-a-half years overseas, a tour that took Vukson through Italy, Africa, France and Germany.
Vukson said he was responsible for the maintenance of 130 trucks and Jeeps and for all the troops and supplies they transported.
Of all the cities the battalion crossed, Vukson said he remembers Anzio, Italy, most vividly.
"It was 24 hours a day, bombing and shelling," Vukson said. "We lived in a hole big enough for two to sleep, and we could see our clothes hanging outside, riddled with shrapnel. The tires on trucks were riddled with bullets. But that's war."
Vukson said he remembers a day when a mine explosion killed more than a quarter of his battalion, and another day when he lost more friends because the kitchen where they were making dinner was shelled. Vukson said he survived the kitchen bombing by chance -- a bout of malaria had kept him in bed.
He said he also remembers when his battalion had an audience with Pope Pius XII in Rome, and he remembers the families his battalion provided rations for. He said he still writes to and shares photos with some of those families.
Vukson's service ended Oct. 6, 1945, with an honorable discharge.
He said he appreciates his life more because of the war, but doesn't think about the experience every day.
"It's another experience in life that you wouldn't trade, but you wouldn't go through it again, either," he said.
Vukson said after he left the service, life continued as usual.
He graduated from Robert Morris University and married in 1950 and then worked as an accountant for Westinghouse for 41 years. His wife, Alma, died in 2006.
Babich said when footage of the Iraq war is on the news, Vukson mentions his own war experience, especially when families are concerned.
"A lot of times, when he's watching TV, he'll point out that they're away from their families or their children, and that it's a hard thing," Babich said.
Vukson has a few pieces of advice for today's service men and women:
"Do the best job you can," he said. "Be dedicated. We've got the best country in the world."