Mark Persons spent his 21st birthday in Vietnam, and he credits his experience serving in the military and the training he received for making him the man he is today.
"I wasn't a foot soldier. I was on an air base, but we did have a few skirmishes on our perimeter and a number of rockets and other explosive devices that came in, and that's mostly why I'm missing some of my hearing," he said.
The 72-year-old is a member of the All Veterans Memorial Committee, the Brainerd Memorial Day Committee and the Brainerd Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1647.
"Memorial Day is really about honoring those who died in service to our country, and a few people I knew did just that, so I have a very strong feeling about Memorial Day," he said.
The Brainerd resident did not want to go into the military, but he said he knew it was a young man's obligation to serve his country. And his patriotism continues with his volunteer work as a photographer and website content writer for the Brainerd Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1647.
"I knew that every young man's responsibility was to serve his country and so I enlisted, and I enlisted in the shortest enlistment I could get, which was three years in the Army," he said. "I wanted to get my obligation over with, so I could go back to civilian life."
The Duluth native grew up in a broadcasting family and knew from age 5 he wanted to be a radio broadcast engineer. His father, Charles B. Persons, started in radio in the 1920s.
"I just followed in his footsteps, and it just seemed so right for me," Mark Persons said.
His parents built KVBR-AM in the Brainerd lakes area and WELY-FM in Ely, and he helped when he was a teenager. He joined the Army in 1966 and taught electronic repair of weapons support radars at Ft. Monmouth, N.J., before serving a year in Vietnam.
"It was a bad time in our country's history. People didn't want to talk about it," he said. "I worked with a guy for 15 years, and it wasn't until after that 15 years that I discovered he was a veteran, too. Can you imagine that? We never talked about it because that's the way life was back then."
He met his wife Paula more than 40 years ago after he was no longer in the military and was looking to buy a home. She was with the real estate agency and they hit it off.
"I knew what I wanted to do, and whatever needed to be done, I did it, whereas the average person who hadn't been through any military training kind of goes, 'Oh, well, if I do it, I do it, and if I don't, I don't.' If I say I'm going to do something, I'll do it. ... The military taught me that," he said.
He spent a year in Vietnam helping to keep the high-tech Grumman OV-1 Mohawk surveillance aircraft in the air. The two-passenger turbo-prop airplane carried cameras, infrared cameras and side-looking airborne radar to spot enemy movements under jungle canopy.
"My father served in World War II. My uncle was a prisoner of war, and I'm a Daughter of the American Revolution," said wife Paula Persons. "I've had a family member in every single war since the Revolutionary War, so I grew up in a military family where patriotism was important."
Mark Persons said, "The interesting part about military life is that they mentally, in basic training, break you down to be nothing-and I mean nothing-and then build you up to be a soldier or right kind of a person to take care of what needs to be done. It's quite a process. It was difficult."
The couple ran a Brainerd business, building and updating radio stations, mostly in the Midwest. They built 12 stations and serviced more than 100 others and along the way he was named Engineer of the Year by the Society of Broadcast Engineers in 2018 for his achievements.
"With the money we earned, we shop local and buy American because that's so important for our country," he said. "If you buy foreign, you've in essence given away those jobs to a foreign country, so what about your children and grandchildren? Can they benefit from that? No."
He said he attributes his hard work ethic and self-discipline to military training where accomplishing the mission was the most important thing.
"My mother said, when I got back, 'You've changed.' ... I think the military instilled a sense of 'country' in me," he said. "I spent my entire 21st year in Vietnam. I arrived just before my birthday and left just after my birthday."
Memorial Day is a federal legal holiday observed the last Monday in May that has come to be associated with sales in recent years.
"Many, many thousands of people have died defending our country against foreign enemies, and people should at least come out to the ceremonies on Memorial Day to help understand what this is all about," Mark said.
Paula added, "And the sacrifices they made."