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They were nurses, dental assistants and mechanics. They drove trucks, served food and operated radios.

They are the unsung heroes who kept the military going in war or peace. Most never saw combat, but they were trained just the same to be prepared to give their lives for their country — for some it was a place that considered them second-class.

On Sunday, New Beginnings Christian Fellowship in Renton honored 68 veterans from all branches of the military at a special service in honor of Veterans Day.

“A nation that does not honor its heroes soon will have no heroes to honor,” David Boyd, 57, an Army Gulf War veteran, told the congregation. The quote, he said, is attributed to Winston Churchill.

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Abraham Lincoln once said almost the same thing: “Any nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure.’’

“A veteran is a veteran,’’ Boyd added. “There is no distinction whether the person served in combat or is just a veteran.’’

Each veteran honored for Monday’s holiday represented a page from history.

Thema Gordon, 49, was an Air Force mechanic. She enlisted in 1993, two years after Operation Desert Storm. She switched jobs after ingesting a mouthful of diesel fuel while siphoning a tank as part of her duty.

Irma Evans, 74, was a nurse in the Army Nurses Corps who comforted burned soldiers returning from the Vietnam War. “They were just kids. …
They were so young,’’ she said.

Ronald Coleman, 56, was an Army cannon crewman, always ready for action during the Iran hostage crisis.

On a screen at the front of the congregation each of the veterans’ photos appeared. The theme songs of all the military branches played.

For Harold Davis, 81, of West Seattle, it was a bittersweet memory of the best and worst times. Born in Chicago, he enlisted in the 1950s and was sent to Missouri for basic training, then to Arkansas.

He was a sergeant, and even in his dress uniform he wasn’t allowed to sit in the main seating section of off-base movie theaters, to drink from water fountains where white people drank.

“The uniform didn’t mean anything,’’ he recalled of his time in the South.

Then he went to Germany. For the first time since enlisting, he felt equal. He took up fencing and traveled Europe, learned the language and impressed everyone at a hofbrau, or restaurant, one night when the locals were challenging each other to come up with lines from fairy tales. He rose and said in perfect German: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’’

Carl Lesesne, 83, was born in Florida and was no stranger to the Jim Crow laws of the South. He enlisted in the Air Force in the 1950s, ended up doing his basic training near San Antonio, Texas, and found that while he was prepared to die for his country, he couldn’t stay in any hotel or motel off base, unless it was owned by African Americans.

“It was really bad,’’ he said. The only advantage the uniform gave him was in Las Vegas. Blacks were allowed in the casinos there, but only in uniform, he recalled.

He ended up spending four years in Japan, working as a dental technician, priding himself on his work and the knowledge that the patients who came through the door left free of pain and “in better shape than before.’’

Eddie Rye Jr. spent the first nine years of his life in Louisiana, then moved to Seattle and graduated in 1959 from Garfield High School. He joined the Army National Guard and was send to Fort Sam Houston for basic training. During the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, he was prepared to go to war, to defend a nation and a community where he had not been allowed
in the main seating area of the theater or to sit with everyone else at a restaurant.

“I had seen segregation up close and personal in Louisiana,’’ he said.

The military was no longer segregated, he tested high on his entrance scores and was being offered opportunities to become an officer. He turned them down. Facing segregation while in uniform was the message of second-class citizenship he could not forgive.

Now once a year, he and the others like him are honored at the church he calls home.

Although the Rev. Leslie David Braxton

was out of town Sunday, he sent a videotaped message that it was important to “give honor where honor is due.’’

Nancy Bartley: or 206-464-8522

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