John Rogers had been a cook in the Army for more than two decades when his National Guard unit was ordered to go to Iraq in 2004.
That's when the then-56-year-old grandfather became a gunner, manning a M240 Bravo machine gun atop a Humvee while patrolling roads around Baghdad.
"They took away my fork and spoon," Rogers said. "There was no cooking over there. They said I had a choice: either be in computer operations or learn the weapons."
Rogers, a father of four, became a lieutenant commander's gunner.
"I got good with the weapon," recalled Rogers, a Niagara Falls resident who is now 69. "I was the oldest gunner in my battalion."
Rogers' first stint with the Army began when he was drafted in 1967. He was sure he was headed to Vietnam, but instead he was stationed in Korea for two years. He was home for three months, working at Bethlehem Steel Corp., when he decided to re-enlist after there were some layoffs in his department. Again, he was certain he'd be sent to Vietnam, but instead he was sent to Germany, where he went to baking school.
"I was a very good cook. I stopped them from going to McDonald's," he said.
After he returned from Germany, Rogers joined the National Guard and was with the 152nd Engineer's Battalion at the Connecticut Street Armory. When he moved to Niagara Falls, he transferred to the 127th Artillery Battalion. The unit was called up to Iraq. He said he was the last in his unit to be sent.
"I've seen devastating stuff over there," he said. "I almost got killed twice by a roadside bomb and mortar."
He was usually part of a group of 15 soldiers in three Humvees, accompanying and protecting their commander as he visited towns and villages, trying to build connections with Iraqis. Rogers was on patrol twice a day, keeping an eye out for IEDs, improvised explosive devices. Insurgents put IEDs in "cans, dead dogs, anything," he said. If it looked suspicious, they would stop to check it out.
"When I first heard a 5,000-pound boom go off, the earth was shaking. 'What did I get myself into?' " he said. "I won't tell a lie. I was scared."
If he was scared, so were the 18- and 20-year-olds in his unit.
"I know they were scared to death. I couldn't show any fear. I just told them to keep their eyes on me. It worked," Rogers said. "I'm 56 years old. Half my life has been spent already. I have to take care of these boys."
While 21 soldiers in his battalion were killed, those in his unit survived.
He was devastated by the Iraqi children he saw who were maimed, missing an arm or a leg. At one point, journalist Laura Logan, who was working for CBS' "60 Minutes," spent time with the unit, he said. It was in talking to her that the magnitude struck him.
"After being over there almost a year, I finally broke down and started crying," he recalled.
Rogers said his battalion guarded former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein after he was captured, but Rogers never saw him.
He returned home with members of the 152nd Engineers Battalion on Sept. 12, 2005. Their bus was met by a police escort that led them to the Connecticut Street Armory. There Rogers was greeted by his family, glad to have him home.
He still has his grandmother's 4-inch brass crucifix that he carried in his pocket in Iraq.
Rogers said he always felt he was not fully qualified as a soldier, because he had not served in combat, and he is proud of his service.
But of combat, he said: "I would not wish it on anybody."
Sgt. John "Van" Rogers, 69
Residence: Niagara Falls
Specialty: Gunner and cook
War zone: Iraq
Years of service: 1968-1975, 1985-2005