Veteran revisits Korea |

Veteran revisits Korea

Christina Proctor

When Rodney Petzak boarded the train to leave Seoul, Korea in 1953 all he saw was devastation. Orphaned and wounded children wandered among the rubble. The surrounding forests were broken and burned, razed by bombings and artillery shells.

“When I left there all I remember is the kids. The children were tragedies,” the 65-year-old said, reminiscing on the final days in his tour of duty in Korea. “You saw children missing limbs walking around alone.”

At the tender age of 20, Petzak learned the realities of war first hand. “We were young kids. We thought it was the right thing to do. It was patriotic, but it was also adventure,” Petzak said. “We were raised on war stories and war games when we were kids. But, after it’s all said, once you get there, you find out it’s not what you thought it was going to be like.”

Petzak served as a Marine lieutenant commander in Baker Company’s first tank battalion. Petzak returned to the United States around the time the armistice was signed. He resigned from service and went on to several successful careers, including his new vocation as an ordained Episcopal priest for St. John’s Episcopal Church in Glenbrook. Petzak also is a peace officer with the Nevada Department of Corrections and is now running for the office of public administrator in Washoe County.

The South Korean Government brings back a number of veterans of the United Nations forces every year. The veterans are honored as “ambassadors for peace” for their service during the Korean War.

In June, 45 years after he departed, Petzak returned to Korea with his wife of 18 years, Sharyn.

When the veterans flew into Seoul they were struck first by the thriving vegetation. They left a country visibly scarred by war.

“We all couldn’t believe how green it was, and the thriving community. In Seoul they had built up all these beautiful buildings and the people there had a pretty good standard of living,” Petzak said. “I’m glad I went back there for a couple of reasons. It was nice to see that what we did … all the mayhem over there, and the tragedy … that some good has come of it – some serious good. They are a thriving happy people rebuilt from the ashes. They have hopes just like the rest of us.”

Petzak also got a chance to talk with some people that were children during the war. The children he has seen as tragedies of war.

“Now these people are successful businessmen,” Petzak said. “They have a real democratic country which makes it worthwhile.”

The Korea Petzak returned to held only subtle reminders of the past. During a trip up the Han River, Petzak noticed the concrete supports on an old steel girder bridge carried pock marks from the shelling. The railway station that Petzak departed from is still there. It was one of the few buildings left standing in 1953. The mostly rural way of life that was common before the war is now relegated to a museum. During one day of the trip the veterans toured a symbolic Korean folk village.

“The old ways are not in evidence at all and you have to go to an historic park to see it. It’s a big tourist thing you go there to see what the culture was like when we left there,” Petzak said.

Petzak talked modestly about his time in Korea almost smoothing over the experience of war and his time serving in it.

“Most of the people that trained us and led us were World War II veterans. These were really class people. Many of them had served several years in the South Pacific. They had just started going to school, started raising a family, started a business. We thought there would be no more wars. These people thought it and believed it, and a lot of them were in the armed reserves,” Petzak said.

“All those guys got pulled right back in to another war right after they got established, and these people didn’t complain. I never heard them complain once. They were a top lot of people, very patriotic. These were our leaders, and our trainers. They never complained so how could we?” Petzak said.

Petzak and his wife moved to Lake Tahoe in 1987 from Spokane, Wash., when Sharyn accepted a teaching job at Kingsbury Middle School. The couple eventually moved to Reno while Sharyn was working on her doctorate at the University of Nevada, Reno, but not before they joined St. John’s church. When the small church couldn’t afford a seminary trained priest the congregation called upon two members to become ordained. It took Petzak four years to complete the process, but it was not without some soul searching along the way.

“I asked one of the priests how I could be called,” Petzak explained “I’m probably one of the greatest sinners of them all. I’ve been in a war. I denied my Lord for years although I knew better. He told me to look at the Apostle Paul, and I couldn’t argue. The Lord often picks people who have not done right in the past to carry his message. I do have a wealth of experience and background and it really helps my sermons because I can relate to a lot of things. I’ve faced life and experienced life probably more than most.”

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