For half a dozen years, Marine veterans of Lodi have gathered on Nov. 10 to celebrate the birthday of the organization that changed each of their lives in turn.
Fourteen men were smoking cigars and enjoying beers at Stogies on Pine Street in honor of the Marine Corps' 237th birthday. None served together, but the connection between any two Marines transpires their unit and time. They greet one another with "Semper Fi," and act as brothers.
"It's because of the grueling, regimented training," said Rusty Smith of Lodi. "We stick together because we know what their life has been like."
Good-natured jokes flew across the bar. Beers were purchased for buddies sitting a few stools away. Rapid-fire laughter exploded every few minutes.
But when "The Marines' Hymn," the official hymn of the U.S. Marine Corps, played over the speakers, conversation ceased. Each man removed his hat and stood at respectful attention. Some sang along, while others mouthed the words or remained still.
"Every one of us stands here with a lump in our throats," said Smith about hearing the song.
Ralph Edalgo of Lodi was seated at the bar, working on a cigar and a beer.
"If I hadn't become a Marine, I would never have become a man," he said. "They are not old enough to drink, but they're old enough to give their lives for this country. The real heroes didn't come home."
Several Lodi Marine veterans shared their memories of serving and coming back into civilian life. Below are their stories.
Alice Leberman of Lodi enlisted in 1954. She was living in Leola, S.D. with her family and knew she couldn't afford college, so she worked on a farm until she was 18 and signed up. She chose the Marines because the uniforms didn't wrinkle, so there was no need to iron them.
At the time, there were only 2,000 female Marines in the entire branch. Leberman worked in payroll, and did her best to keep busy during her three years in the service.
"I'd do it again. Everyone should join some branch of the service at 18. They would learn so much," she said. "There were some girls when I was in boot camp who couldn't take it — had never done any laundry or anything. There are a lot of young people that have never done anything.
"It's good for people," she said. "It would really change our nation."
Ron Portal was carrying on his family's tradition when he enlisted in 1966. His father was a gunnery sergeant, and numerous cousins and uncles had also served in the Marines.
He served for four years, and was deployed to Vietnam in mid-1969. He recalls so many firefights in a zone called Arizona Territory that his hearing was permanently damaged. In December, his shoulder was damaged and Portal could no longer do his job as a radioman. He was discharged as a corporal.
Flying back into San Diego and witnessing the public's sentiment firsthand was like a slap in the face, he said.
"We heard all this yelling, we thought it was cheering. As we came close, 200 to 300 people were behind a chain-link fence, spitting, hollering at us and calling us all kinds of names. I'll never forget the looks on their faces. Pure hatred," he said.
Angry and disillusioned, Portal hitchhiked across the country to clear his mind. It wasn't until years later that Portal was able to put on his uniform. Now, he dons the dress blues each year for the Veterans Day celebration at the American Legion Hall.
"I don't think anybody expected to be idolized or anything like that when they came home. All we wanted to do was come back, be left alone, and carry on with our lives. We weren't allowed to do that ," he said.
"We knew that we served to carry out the wishes of the civilian government," he added. "We don't do it to have any sort of recognition from civilians. We do it 'cause we love the country."
Michael Doruin of Lodi, 59, was commissioned in 1974 and managed the long days and high expectations of officer school. His basic class was the first in which male and female officers-in-training were integrated in their classes.
"There was no resistance," he said. "Women Marines have been around forever. And all officers need to know the same things."
Doruin remembers partying hard with his fellow Marines at the annual Marine Corps' Birthday Ball, then waking up bright and early the next day for their personal fitness tests. Running three miles, then completing 20 pull-ups and 80 sit-ups put him back in the frame of mind for work.
"A Marine is a self-motivator, with the ability to see the big picture. They understand what needs to be done and they get it done. The best Marines can do that, and you usually don't have to tell them a whole lot," he said.
Terry Martin enlisted in 1968 and was deployed to Vietnam to work as a translator and a forward artillery observer. After nearly two years, he was ready to get out of the service as a sergeant and did not re-enlist.
Martin put his memories of the war — and the Marines in general — in the back of his mind for years, refusing to talk about it. It was his way of defending himself from the anti-war and anti-military sentiment in the country following the Vietnam War.
Three years ago, Martin was persuaded to join a veterans' group in Sacramento, where he has been able to share his experiences with others who understand.
"I thought I was unaffected," he said. "It's been difficult, but really meaningful to be part of that group. We all have common experiences and we know more about each other than my other friends know about me."
Today, Martin is glad to see sentiment has changed. When he sees a soldier in public, people go up and thank them for their service.
"You didn't see any of that when I came home," he said. "We thought we were doing something right. We were treated like we were monsters in a lot of ways. People realize now these guys are people who give their own lives to protect our country."
Andres Lopez, 29, enlisted in 2001 right out of high school. He chose the Marines to train with the best of the best, he said.
After training, he was selected for security duty at the Pentagon and Camp David, the presidential retreat.
When Lopez was assigned to an infantry unit, his peers called him the "poster boy" of the Marine Corps. The Iraq War began in 2003, and Lopez was deployed in February 2004 for eight months.
"I'm not going to sit there and say it was fun," he said. "I didn't see anything for a few months, thought that was it. But then we had my first firefight. The first time is always going to be the scariest time. After that, the training kicks in."
Lopez got out in 2005, and has received only positive comments about his service.
"Everybody thanks you. I've never came across a person with a negative reaction. Everyone I have seen and met all support the military," he said.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at email@example.com.