By: Staff Writer
Lakeland - In October 1960, only a couple of months after graduating from high school, John Hillery, one of the most highly decorated soldiers who is currently living in Polk County, joined the military. After completing his training, he was sent to Ft. Carlson, CO and, shortly after, was shipped to Auburg Germany, where he met his first wife. At that time, John was a K-9 handler for the U.S. Army.
After completing his assignment in Germany, John came back to the United States and was sent to Ft. Ord, California where he was assigned to a unit that was scheduled to deploy to Vietnam. And that was where John's real taste of the military began.
Shortly after arriving in Vietnam in 1965, John lost his K-9 in a minefield. According to John, the minefield was said to be cleared, but his dog found one, which killed him instantly.
Not long after losing his K-9, John was injured, for the first time, and was sent back to Ft. Gordon, GA to attend his injuries. He spent close to nine months at the Eisenhower Army Medical Center attending his injuries and getting ready to be reassigned to a new unit. After getting better, John was reassigned to a base in Alaska to a unit that was, again, getting ready to deploy… and in 1968, John found himself on his way back to Vietnam, just to find himself getting wounded, again.
After recovering from his injuries at a hospital in Japan, John decided that it was time to take himself out of the field, and asked to be reassigned to a base stateside. “I just couldn’t do it anymore, so I asked to be taken out of the field,” said John with tears in his eyes.
In 1982, John was sent to Ft. Benning, GA where he met his second wife, Karin, and where he started his retirement process, which was finalized in January 1984.
After retiring, John and his new wife moved to his hometown in Polk County, where he tried to work in different jobs, just to find himself struggling with the transition from military to civilian life. “When I came back home, I struggled so much with the transition. I had a hard time getting used to going from a soldier to a 'nobody.' It was tough and it took me a while to get used to it, but with the help of my wife, I was able to do it,” said John looking straight at his wife, and again, with tears in his eyes. There is common knowledge that behind every strong man, there is an even stronger woman, and in this case, Karin was that strong woman that helped John find his way back into society.
John’s injuries in combat made him a recipient of the Purple Heart award, which is considered the 5th highest award in the military and one that is only awarded to men and women who have been either injured or killed in combat. But it was John’s experience in the military that made him the man he is today… a man with a strong sense of patriotism and with a superb commitment to his community. This commitment has pushed him to join many great organizations in the area; one of them being The Military Order Purple Heart Chapter 535-FL-4.
The Military Order Purple Heart Chapter 535-FL-4 was originally chartered on May 1st, 1992, and was re-named, the Harry R. Alexander Memorial Chapter 535- FL-4, on November 4th. 2017, in honor of World II U.S. Navy Veteran, Chapter Junior Vice Commander, Patriot Harry R. Alexander. For many years, John has served his community as the Junior Vice Commander for this chapter, which is located in Lakeland, FL.
The Military Order of the Purple Heart is a congressionally chartered United States War Veterans organization. Headquartered just outside Washington, D.C., it has a membership of approximately 45,300 Veterans.
One of John’s major accomplishments within his community is the creation of a leadership recognition award for Junior ROTC cadets, whose main purpose is to recognize top students among high schools in the area by bringing awareness on the importance of patriotism among our youth.
The truth is that speaking with John was a very rewarding experience. As a Purple Heart recipient, John represents what a hero truly is, but it’s his commitment to his country, to his fellow Veterans, and mostly, to the youth that makes him one of the most remarkable residents in our community.
When asked about what he would tell a child who would like to join the military when he/she grows up, John didn’t hesitate to give us his opinion…. “If a young man or woman asks me if he/she should join the military, I would say go for it, because the people you will meet and the people you will serve with will become your family during your entire military career.” He proceeded to say… “We became a country by fighting together, and we will remain a country by continuing fighting together.”
And before he concluded the interview, John had a message for parents… “If you want your sons or daughters to turn into a man or a woman in less than eight weeks, tell them to join the military.”