Today marks the 59th anniversary of the signing of the armistice between the United States and North Korean forces in the three-year battle that resulted in the present-day divisions of communist North Korea and democratic South Korea. A demilitarized line along the 38th Parallel still separates the two countries, with armed troops waiting on either side.
The war began on June 25, 1950, and, by its end, 5.7 million had served on both sides. The United States lost 33,741 troops in combat and suffered 103,384 wounded.
Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Inside a quiet storefront office, behind a closed backroom door, a group of five graying men sip coffee and toss out the names of long-dead men such as Harry S. Truman and Douglas MacArthur as though those figures still breathe.
The handful of men tell and retell youthful stories as their eyes at times brighten with laughter and, at others, darken with tears. Here they share, here black-and-white photos ignite memory in color, smell and sound that never fade.
They spent their late teens and early 20s becoming men in frozen hillsides on the Korean peninsula or hauling cargo across the globe, a small piece in the big machine of the Korean War. They returned from that "forgotten war" and went to work in offices, factories and at the pulpit.
But the war never left them.
"I carried an M-1 rifle. I was a ground-pounder," Jackie Ledford will tell you.
The 81-year-old man absently rolls his wooden cane on the tabletop as he recollects his days in combat.
The group of Korean War veterans meets twice a month, sharing their stories and listening to Chattanooga Vet Center counselor Chuck Ayars, himself an Iraq War veteran.
Before retiring, Jim Cecil, a Vietnam War veteran, led the group and both counselors said the men come from a humble generation and fought in a conflict sandwiched between World War II and Vietnam, a fact that drowned their homecoming, history and later difficulties.
The Korean War never really ended, as any of these men will tell you. On this day in 1953 the United States and North Korea signed an armistice and established a still-fiercely guarded line along the 38th parallel.
Many combat veterans of the war returned to an uninterested nation and became either workaholics or alcoholics, veterans and counselors say. It's in elder years that the war can roar back into dreams, if it ever left at all.
"Combat veterans are such a small population," Ayars said. "They tend to be isolated, less social. Once they show up they find they really do get a lot out of it."
SHARED BUT DISTINCT
Each of the men faced different involvement in the war. Two walked patrols, fired rifles and watched friends die.
One had the devastating job of driving truckloads of troops to the front lines, then hauling the dead and wounded back, seeing firsthand the effects of bombs, bullets and horror.
Another flew air missions across the Pacific Ocean and throughout the Western Hemisphere, bringing much-needed supplies but never facing hostile fire.
Memories of a beloved lieutenant haunt Ledford, how the man guided him, saved him and ultimately took his place when a bullet found its mark. Drafted into the U.S. Army from his North Georgia home in Tennga, Ledford walked patrols on the front lines.
Lt. Robert Cross took the young private under his wing. One particular day, Cross dug Ledford out of a foxhole caved in enemy fire, pouring canteen water to wash off the dirt and muck stuck to the scared soldier's face.
One ordinary patrol lingers in the mind of Ledford, who remembers it for its strange start and terrifying end.
A sergeant from another unit, fresh into the combat zone, wanted to go on the patrol. With him, the group numbered 13. Ledford remembered Cross didn't like the omen and said so. The sergeant persisted; the lieutenant relented.
"Cross says, 'Ledford, I'm gonna take the lead today, instead of you,'" Ledford recounts, his head and eyes dropping.
The patrol walked on, crossing a river three different times. Enemy soldiers opened fire with a heavy machine gun. As Cross turned, Ledford saw a hole blossom in his lieutenant's head.
"I threw my M-1 rifle and went to him; he was gone. It broke my heart," Ledford whispered. "He saved my life many a time and I don't know why."
Billy Brown, 77, a Rome, Ga., native, ran away from home three times as a teenager to join the Army and finally got to stay at age 15.
"I just wanted to get away, didn't matter, the deepest, furthest I could go," Brown said.
He turned 16 just before heading into combat.
He trained hard, fought hard, lived hard and soon was promoted to squad leader. Clutching his rifle atop a lonely hill as a barrage of bombs and missiles rained down, a single mortar round crashed into the dirt a few feet away but didn't explode.
"This is insane, that people would do this, what we're doing to each other," Brown remembers thinking.
He saw a vision of his own body being loaded into a poncho and began a fervent prayer, "I said, 'If I get through this, I want my life to count for more than this.'"
A couple of years later, he became a pastor and later returned to South Korea in 1978 on a Christian mission trip.
Robert Lasky, 81, saw the message clear -- a war was coming and he'd serve, but not in the mud if he could help it.
A Brooklyn native and 19 at the time, he received an Army draft notice at the end of 1949. Two weeks later, he and most of the men his age on his city block signed up for the Air Force.
Lasky spent the war as a "flying truck driver," hauling supplies from the U.S. to Central and South America and Japan. Flying wasn't as safe in those days and stories of lost planes on noncombat missions studded airmen's thoughts.
Al Chambers grew up here and tried to join the U.S. Air Force as war approached, but was instead drafted into the Army. Some luck prevailed and he ended up in transportation while many of his fellow soldiers became infantrymen.
Nearly every day for seven months before the armistice, Chambers drove fresh soldiers from the southern headquarters to the fighting. Ruin grew as his truck chugged northward. Flashing sights of abandoned children, some missing arms or legs, others starving, still bring tears and small choked gasps from the 79-year-old man.
After cease-fire, the U.S. exchanged enemy war dead for their own. Chambers stood on the loading docks as 380 body bags with his fellow Americans inside were lifted, four at a time onto the ship. With each group, the living men stood and saluted as "taps" played.
"You feel bad when you're standing there and these dead guys are going home," he said. "You feel guilty, I do, I did. I wasn't married, single guy. I know a lot of those guys were married, had children. It kind of gets into your head."
In that small, sparse room in Chattanooga, there's comfort that, as much as family may love, it cannot provide.
When one of the men recounts decades of waking, covered in sweat from nightmares, the others nod. When one of the men's voice fades as he retells a troubling scene, others reassure him he did what he had to. When one of the men searches for answers as to why he survived and the man next to him didn't, others remind him of his life.
This is an exercise Ayars leads sometimes. With a marker in hand, he'll stand at a whiteboard and ask each man to name his wife, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren.
As he records the names from each veteran, the board fills and each man sees the lives he touched in the six decades since combat. These names mark a fullness of time in the crater avoided when each man didn't die.
In this small room, they welcome each other and Brown closes with a prayer.
"You know what we talked about here," he says as men bow their heads. "We can't help but lift up our hearts in thanks for being here when so many others could not."