It was 13 years ago, in the summer of 1996, that Perry Dickey, a proud U.S. Marine from Oklahoma who had fought in Korea in 1951, decided he'd finally attend one of the reunions his old Dog Company mates had started holding each year around the country.
But when he stepped into the hotel ballroom in Orlando, Fla., he stopped dead in his tracks.
"I'd had mixed feelings about going and then I looked around and didn't see anyone I knew," recalls Perry. "I turned to my wife and said, 'Let's go.'
"But she said we paid our money and we ought to look around at least for a minute."
At this point, Perry stops to wipe something out of his eye.
"I looked around some more and I saw some guys who rang some bells," he says, his composure regained, "and then I started remembering a lot of things I hadn't even realized I forgot.
"I guess the bottom line is these things (reunions) are a real benefit to the guys who were there," he says. "We have a feeling for each other we don't have for other people. We remember things we haven't thought about for 60 years. We could try and explain it to you, but there's no way we could create the words that would communicate what it was like being there."
It could be that it's even more meaningful since the war the men experienced together is known as the Forgotten War.
Fought between 1950 and 1953, with two years of peacekeeping after that, the Korean War is sandwiched in history between the enormously popular World War II and the enormously unpopular Vietnam War.
Almost 60 years later, the dividing line drawn to separate North Korea from South Korea -— and communism from democracy — remains untouched.
"We're proud of what we did. We drew a line in the sand and told the communists, that's it, you aren't going any farther," says Gale Jensen, a proud U.S. Marine who fought alongside Dickey in Korea in 1951 and now makes his home in Roy.
Gale is hosting this year's Dog Company reunion, which started Wednesday and runs through Sunday at the downtown Salt Lake Radisson. He's arranged for various tours of military and church sites while the men of Dog Company are in town, but he knows the real action is in the hotel hospitality room, where the stories flow like the beer used to.
It's better to bide your time before you jump into the conversation, Jensen advises, offering this bit of Marine wisdom: "The first liar doesn't have a chance."
The stories never get old and they never stay exactly the same.
One of their favorites is about a Korean named Ki Hong Kim, a 16-year-old whom Dog Company hired as an interpreter back in '51.
During a heated battle, Kim sustained an injury that the Koreans working on the dead-body detail perceived to be fatal. Thinking he was one of the enemy, they dumped Kim's body on the dead enemy pile rather than the dead Marine pile.
But a Marine recognized Kim as the company interpreter and asked that his body be switched to the Marine pile where it belonged. During the transfer someone saw Kim's eyelid move. He wasn't dead after all.
After the armistice, the Korean veterans association arranged for a very much alive Kim to come to the United States and get an education. He received a Ph.D. and to this day lives in San Diego.
"I thought he was dead until I came to a reunion and saw him standing there," says Perry. "Now that was a surprise."
A pleasant surprise. Which is what the Dog Company reunions are really all about.
Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.