Jerry Lagenor dropped out of McKinley High School's sheet metal vocational program after tenth grade. He thought he would be better off working for his father's heating and air conditioning business.
But when his dad closed up shop to work for a big contractor, Lagenor considered his options. There weren't many. He could continue working at his new place of employment, a machine shop, or beat the government to the punch and enlist in the military rather than face the draft during the Vietnam War.
He and a friend signed up for the Navy.
"At the last minute, before we were scheduled to take the bus out to Great Lakes Naval Station for basic training, I got nervous and told my friend, 'I'm not going.' He said to me, 'You can't just not go. You signed the papers.' I said, 'I didn't take an oath,' " Lagenor recalled.
About an hour later, a Navy recruiter called his home and asked to speak with him.
"He sounded polite at first, and then when I told him it was me speaking, he said, 'You didn't join the Boy Scouts, you joined the Navy. Get your butt down here.'
"I told him, 'I didn't take the oath. I'm not gonna go.' I gave him the raspberries and hung up."
Realizing the inevitability of receiving a draft notice, he says he got over his jitters and enlisted in the Army in November 1967.
"It appealed to me to become an Army airborne ranger," he said.
Jerry Lagenor, 68
Hometown: North Tonawanda
Rank: Specialist 4
War zone: Vietnam
Years of service: November 1967 – June 1970
Most prominent honors: 2 Purple Hearts; 2 Bronze Stars, one with "V" for valor; Combat Infantry Badge, New York State Conspicuous Service Medal
Specialty: mechanized armor
But the Navy hadn't written him off.
While Lagenor was at basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., he said he called home one weekend and his mother was beside herself.
"She told me the Navy's Shore Patrol officers were at the house wanting to know where I was. They said I should be at Great Lakes and that I was AWOL. I told my mother, 'Don't worry. Did you tell them I was in the Army?' She said, 'Yes.' "
The Navy proved persistent. Shore Patrol officers showed up at Fort Dix to confirm he was in the Army. After they verified he was in basic training, they him left alone, but his wheels had started spinning.
"It was a nightmare. I thought that after I finished my tour in the Army, I'd have to serve in the Navy," he said.
The fear turned out to be unfounded, but his two tours of duty in Vietnam provided him with other nightmarish experiences.
When he arrived in the war zone, he says his paratrooper specialty was changed to ground duty because he previously refused to give up one of two weeks of leave and ship out early with the other paratroopers.
"No way I was giving up my leave time," he said.
That decision resulted in an assignment as a M-60 machine gunner aboard a mechanized armored three-quarter cab with the 25th Infantry Division. The search-and-destroy missions were many and often took him west to the Cambodian border and north to Da Nang from the unit's massive base camp at Cu Chi, some 40 miles northeast of Saigon.
While the fighting often occupied his thoughts, Lagenor said his mind was also on the future.
"I started thinking when I was in Vietnam that I needed do something about getting a high school equivalency diploma for when I got out. That must have been the good Lord touching my heart to do that. So every time we were in base camp back from a mission, I'd get all the books I could and study," he said. "Three months after I got to Vietnam, I took the GED exam at the camp and passed."
The conditions were not always conducive to learning. The enemy frequently prowled the base camp.
"Years later, I read a book about the tunnels of Cu Chi and that explained how the enemy kept infiltrating our camp. The Viet Cong had an elaborate tunnel system right under the camp. They'd blow up helicopters and anyone who got in their way," he said.
Camp was supposed to be a haven where soldiers could catch their breath after serving days and weeks out in the field, where danger was everywhere.
And Lagenor was intimately aware of those dangers. He was wounded twice.
"The first time it was a small firefight. I was shooting my M-60 machine gun from the cargo hatch of an armored personnel vehicle and I felt like someone hit me in the side with a baseball bat, and I just went down."
The bullet struck his left side near his hip, "missing my pelvis by a hair."
A month later, he was back in action, but had switched jobs and was driving the armored vehicle. He thought that was safer .
"As a driver, your body is sticking out. If you get into any kind of fire, you can lower your seat and use a periscope. Twice I ran over land mines and was thrown from the vehicle but unharmed," he said.
That all happened during his first 12-months in Vietnam. He received his second Purple Heart after volunteering for second six-month tour.
"The Army promised me I would be assigned as a base camp mechanic repairing the armored vehicles. But when I got back to Vietnam, the policy changed and mechanics needed to be on line with the outfits when they were on missions," Lagenor said.
"I was driving again, and I ran over another land mind. I was thrown out and this time I got wounded by a little shrapnel, and that's how I got my second Purple Heart."
During this final tour of duty, Lagenor was in a brutal battle that he cannot forget.
"It was right near the Cambodian border, and we came under attack by a whole battalion of the North Vietnamese Army. We had three rows of razor wire in front of us and halfway through the battle, the wire was flattened by the bodies of the enemy.
"They kept coming at us in waves, and we'd shoot them from our vehicles and they'd fall on the wire. There came a point that we knew we weren't going to keep them back and our captain gave the order for us to all get inside our tracts and button up. He ordered an artillery barrage to be dropped on our location. The artillery was fired from a base about eight miles away, and by God's grace none of our vehicles took a direct hit."
When the battle was over, five Americans had died.
"But for the enemy," Lagenor said, "the body count was 500."
He says it is nothing short of a miracle that he returned home alive from Vietnam.
And the GED he earned over there opened many doors.
"I was able get in at the Ashland refinery and I worked there 12 years until it closed. Then I worked for the Clarence school system as a head custodian, and I finally got in at Dunlop as a tire builder and retired from there after 24½ years. I wouldn't have gotten into any of those places without my GED," he said.
Retired almost four years, he became a grandfather in June. Lagenor says he spends a lot of time fishing and caring for his grandson. But there are always the memories of the war:
"I'll be talking about it and it seems like yesterday. and then I realize, wow, that was almost 50 years ago. I still can't believe it was that long ago."