Gordon L. Petro, 80, a retired U.S. Army command sergeant major, thinks the two years he spent in captivity during the Korean War were a "cakewalk."
"I spent a couple of years in a POW camp in Korea," he said. "But it was probably a cakewalk compared to what those poor guys went through in Vietnam."
U.S. Congressman Bill Posey presented the humble veteran, who served 27 years in the Army, with a Prisoner of War medal on Friday. Petro, who is now 80, retired as a command sergeant major and then pursued a career teaching Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, or JROTC, in California. He retired, again, to Brevard County.
"I don't think we can ever honor our POWs enough, or all the soldiers that take that risk when they sign up," Posey said before pinning the medal on Petro's orange Hawaiian shirt.
Petro, who is from upstate New York, walked out of high school when the Korean War started. He did not earn his degree, but later received two during his Army service.
In 1951, he was given a six-month tour of duty as a "non-jumping Ranger" on a ground support crew in North Korea. It was during that tour, when he was 18 or 19 years old, that he was captured.
"Our job was to go in front of the line, see what we could do to stop the enemy from infiltrating," he said. "We were out to stop them, but more or less, they got to us.
"I was going to be rotated the next day. I was the platoon sergeant. I figured, 'What's one more day, one more mission?' "
Petro was preparing for the mission when he was captured. He was held captive for two years, from Sept. 3, 1951, to Sept. 3, 1953.
"There were times there were pure tragedies," he said, remembering other soldiers who were so cold, so stricken with frostbite they lost their toes. When he was first captured, Petro said he was alone and put into a dark, closed hole. He did not eat. When he was let out of the darkness, a guard waved three fingers at him.
"I took it to mean I was there three days," he said.
"Youth was on my side. I could survive better."
He and others at "Camp Four" were freed in 1953 and moved to United Nations military control.
"What a feeling it was," said Petro, who added that overwhelming sensation had not happened to him again until Friday.
As he accepted the POW medal, Petro cried.
His service may have gone unnoticed had it not been for the staff of Candlewood Suites in Melbourne. Petro stayed there last year after his wife of 54 years died, and staffers slowly got to know the man they now consider a grandfather.
In casual conversation, night auditor Sue Pagel learned about Petro's service and time as a POW. So she and other staff, including general manager Nick Ramchandani, had a flag-raising in Petro's honor.
"I just couldn't believe it. Sixty years and he's never been recognized for it," she said. "He's never complained. He went on and served many years after that. He's a wonderful young man."
But the flag-raising wasn't enough for Pagel, a mother of two servicemembers, who contacted Rob Medina in Posey's office.
"It all started over a cup of coffee," she said.
Petro spent 21 years of his military career in recruiting, enjoying the benefits of being in the military, but serving in the civilian community. About his career, he says, "They treated me well."
He said he was surprised to receive the medal, which he did not even know existed until he talked to Pagel. Proudly wearing the medal, Petro asked for one thing.
"The soldiers of today, men and women ... when you see them, thank them for their service," he said. "It may sound corny, but it's not to me."
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