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Veterans Day brings back memories for Korean War, Iraq vets

They joined the military for different reasons, served in different wars and grew up in different eras. But Bill Volenick and Sean Keyman have a lot in common.

Volenick is an 80-year-old Korean War veteran who enlisted in the Army to work in intelligence at the Pentagon but instead spent 16 months overseas. Keyman is a 26-year-old veteran who served eight months in Iraq after signing up for the Marines straight out of high school.

But for both men, their time spent serving their country helped shape them into who they are today. Both attribute their successful careers and their outlook on life to the military.

Volenick and Keyman are just two of the thousands of veterans with ties to Howard County who will be honored on Veterans Day, Friday, Nov. 11. (While the number of veterans in the county is unclear, nearly half a million live in Maryland, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.)

On a day that stirs "a lot of memories," Volenick said he will try to be around other veterans. He plans to attend the annual breakfast and ceremony at Veterans Elementary School, which is located on Ellicott City land formerly owned by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars, as well as the ceremony at the Ellicott City VFW post, of which he is a member.

Keyman's recognition, meanwhile, will be more silent: He said he has no special plans for celebrating the holiday.

An Ellicott City resident who grew up in Baltimore, Volenick enlisted in the Army at 21 just after graduating from Loyola College with a bachelor's degree in biology. He didn't want to wait until he was drafted.

"With enlisting, I could pick my branch and what assignment I was," Volenick said in a recent interview.

He asked to study Russian and get a job working in Army intelligence at the Pentagon.

"I figured Army intelligence would beat being a foot soldier in a foxhole somewhere," Volenick said.

Army recruiters, however, had different plans for Volenick. He was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division and ordered to learn Chinese at the Army Language School in California.

Sent to Korea

In 1954, Volenick was deployed on a 16-month combat tour in Korea, leaving behind his wife and young daughter (the first of three).

"If you got there, you were lucky to be there 16 months," he said. "Otherwise you'll be home with a purple heart or a body bag."

Volenick was lucky. He served in a recon unit working on intelligence solutions with the Chinese. Being in Korea during the waning stages of the conflict, Volenick lost more friends to hemorrhagic fever — a deadly infection carried by a parasite that lives on rodents — than bullets.

Still, serving in Korea during the final years of the war was also a curse. Volenick said he and many of the other soldiers who left Korea in 1955, so close to bringing the conflict to an end, regret giving in to North Korea.

"Our feeling was, let's get it over with so our children, our grandchildren don't have to come back here and finish it," he said.

When Volenick and 200 other soldiers returned home, no one was at the dock to greet their ship, except family members and friends and one women passing out doughnuts.

"People were beginning to feel like they didn't want war and they didn't want us fighting over there for Korea," Volenick explained.

Still, Volenick returned home with a newfound appreciation for life and the blessings of living in the United States.

"It was nice to be able to drive down to a store and buy things … not have to worry about running across a land mine," he said.

Two months after his return, Volenick was recruited to work as an intelligence specialist for the National Security Agency.

"I had a great career with intelligence," he said. "Every time I thought about leaving, they promoted me."

After retiring in 1990, Volenick was awarded the National Intelligence Medal, one of the highest honors the Central Intelligence Agency can bestow. (Volenick worked under the Department of Defense, but was on loan several times to the CIA.)

These days, Volenick stays busy doing volunteer work. He serves as a state officer with the American Legion, judge advocate for the VFW post in Ellicott City, a member of the Howard County Police Citizen's Advisory Council and a member of the Howard County Commission for Veterans and Military Families.

A marine at 19

Keyman, a 2003 Hammond High School graduate, decided to join the Marine Corps straight out of high school.

"I didn't want to start working, and I didn't want to keep going to school because I knew I could learn more in the real world hands on," he said.

Unlike Volenick, Keyman planned on serving overseas. That's why he chose the Marines.

"If was going to sign up, I felt I want to take part in my generation's war," he said.

Keyman spent eight months in Iraq from 2004 to 2005.

"I was 19; it's hard to look back and think about what I was thinking and turn it into words," he said.

"It was a lot more boring than I thought it would be, a lot more down time to do absolutely nothing," Keyman said. "But then there were times when everything was going down … times I was scared."

Death was a part of life in Iraq, but it didn't hit too close to home for Keyman. Many of the people he saw dying were Iraqis, not his fellow soldiers.

"I always just viewed it as, 'It's all relative.' I had more friends that died in America than died in Iraq," Keyman said.

Though death was common, the notion that Americans were "over there murdering left and right" is not true, he said.

"We were really restricted by rules of engagement in Iraq," Keyman explained.

During his time in the Marines, Keyman was also stationed overseas in Japan, Korea and Kuwait, places that broadened his view of the world.

"Living in Columbia, Maryland, no one has a clue of what the real world is," he said.

When Keyman was honorably discharged from the Marines in 2007, he moved back to Columbia and used his benefits from the GI bill to attend classes at Howard Community College. It was there, in the college's entrepreneurial center, that Keyman and fellow Iraq veteran Jon DeWald built a government contracting business called Trifecta Energy Group, which is based in Annapolis Junction.

Keyman used federal money set aside to help disabled veteran-owned businesses to build the company, which designs and builds power plants for the government and some private sector clients.

Many of the clients Keyman works with are veterans. And being a veteran has benefited Keyman as a 26-year-old company president.

"I'm always the youngest person in the room, always," he said. "The respect is definitely there because of the military."

'New training in life'

Both Volenick and Keyman say the lessons and practices they learned in the service carried over into their post-military lives.

"One thing in the service you have to learn is teamwork," Volenick said. "You got to watch your buddy's back; he's got to watch yours.

"As a supervisor in the Defense Department, I tried to treat the people who worked for me like they were my buddies in service," he added.

Keyman, too, said his military service taught him that teamwork is key to success.

"I feel that I'm just a small part of a small machine that's a part of another small machine. … I don't view people as significant by themselves. I don't view myself as significant," he said. "As soon as I started to realize that, everything else started to fall into place."

The military also taught Keyman to follow orders. Now, whenever someone asks him to do something, he does it without question — even in his company, where he's in charge.

Volenick said he, too, learned to follow rules while in the military, and as a result he's very disciplined.

"I walked away from the thing with a whole new training in life, a good career," Volenick said.

Because he already had a bachelor's degree before he joined the Army, Volenick used his GI benefits to get a loan for his first house. He had intended to go to medical school, but the opportunities the military provided him led him down a different path.

For Keyman, who had no specific direction when he enlisted, the opportunities the military provided forged his path.

"There's not a single thing I would be doing if it weren't for the Marines," Keyman said. "I'm definitely proud that I did it."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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