If you go to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum on a Friday morning, you’ll find a friendly, warm-hearted retired Marine leading a guided tour with his smile.
Paul Gelinas, 72, has a positive attitude toward life that can brighten anyone’s day, and a smile that can make you forget you ever frowned.
After 21 years of service in the military and moving 22 times in 30 years, Paul volunteers at the museum and is happily retired with his wife in the McMinnville, Ore., area. More important, they’re here to stay.
“We’re happy as clams,” Paul says.
His positive attitude may seem puzzling, considering the obstacles he’s faced in his life. Those memories will stay with him forever. Yet his story is nothing short of an inspiration.
Everyone who knows Paul well knows that more than anything else, especially Dick Peterson, another war veteran and tour guide at Evergreen.
“Once a Marine, you’re always a Marine,” Peterson said.
When 17-year-old Paul told his parents he wanted to join the Marine Corps, his mother cried for a month. His father thought the idea was crazy, but gave his blessing, telling Paul, “If you give the Marines 100 percent, they will give you 150 percent.”
So off he went in 1959, turning down three college scholarships to live out his dream.
Before Paul knew it, he was at boot camp staring down at a line of painted yellow footprints in a line of young men. They were all forced to stand on them and not move. One of the commanders ordered, “I want you to forget about your mom, dad, everything.”
Such tactics would change Paul’s mentality over the next 13 weeks.
“This is not your father’s boot camp,” he says. “The idea is to take privileges away and then give them back gradually as prizes. It builds brotherhood.”
After boot camp, Paul went to the Marine Corps’ communications and electronics school for 36 weeks and then to its training command. Both were in California.
In less than a year after joining the Marines, he was a commander teaching his peers on the other end of the country from his hometown of Fall River, Mass.
The situation in Vietnam soon worsened. Paul went there on a standard 13-month tour for the first time in 1964. After returning for several more years at the communication school, Paul went back to Vietnam in 1968. By then, the United States was in “total combat.”
“It was like a different country,” he said. “There was no going out at night.”
Paul was assigned to provide communication support for the infantry in Phu Bai, South Vietnam, near Hué, a city “about the size of Portland.”
The infamous Tet Offensive also happened in 1968. Paul got a front-row seat while the casualty numbers and nightly attacks only got worse. There were days in the ensuing battle when Paul would only get two hours of sleep as he supported the infantry.
“Everything the infantry needed, they had, and we did it all. I cooked. I fixed radios. I drove trucks. You name it, we did everything,” he says. “It didn’t matter if you were a mess cook or a rocket scientist. You did what you had to do.
“Our convoys were constantly ambushed,” he says, “and during the height of the Tet Offensive we were even being rocketed in the daytime. It was battle 24/7.”
In retrospect, Paul says there wasn’t any such thing as a typical day on the job during that tour in Vietnam. More than anything, he says he “lived for” writing letters home every few weeks, seeing Martha Raye entertaining the troops – which he did 11 times – and drinking warm beer flown in from the U.S.
Raye was an American comic actress who would put on shows for the troops at various bases in Vietnam. They loved her act, especially Paul.
Yet the one time he chose not to see her performance stays lodged in his memory.
“They made an announcement that Martha Raye is gonna be down at the airfield,” he says. “They had a full truckload. So the first sergeant came up to me, and he said, ‘Listen, you’ve been three or four times. There’s some guys that haven’t been there. Do you mind giving up your seat?’ And I said, ‘No, not at all.’
“On the way to the Martha Raye show, the guy was sitting in my seat in the truck, and it drove over a land mine and it killed him.
“When it’s your time, it’s your time. And I didn’t find this out for about three months. I knew the truck had hit a land mine, but one of the guys that recovered said to me, ‘Yeah, the guy was sitting where you usually sit.’
“That stands out in my mind,” Paul says.
Soon after Paul retired from the Marine Corps as a captain in 1979, he noticed something was wrong.
“My wife would tell me. She’d say, ‘I remember a few nights I was afraid to wake you up because you were going crazy.’ And in fact, a couple times she would take a broom handle and poke me to wake me up.
“One time in San Diego, a car backfired and I had the car in park and was out of the car in less than ten seconds,” he says.
As the stigma surrounding it has started to fade today, Paul isn’t afraid to admit he had PTSD. However, he used to dismiss these events as things that happen after one goes to combat, and just accepted that he would “live with it.” Paul hopes no war veteran will make this mistake today because the military offers so much help for today’s soldiers.
“They’re encouraging people to go talk to somebody,” he says.
In fact, Paul adds it’s because he himself gradually got courage to talk to somebody that he was cured of PTSD.
“We’ve all grown up. This is not the same United States it was 30 years ago, and it is going to be different 10 years from now,” he says.
Paul and his wife moved to McMinnville in 2004. Their nine years in McMinnville are the longest they’ve ever lived in one place after spending much of their time working overseas.
Paul discovered Evergreen on a drive to the Oregon coast and has been a volunteer and tour guide there since 2005. His wife also started volunteering there a year later.
“We’re paid very well here – we get a free lunch,” he jokes.
Paul says he has no regrets about anything. He also laughs about how his parents seemed to get smarter as he got older.
“By the time I retired from the Marine Corps, I thought my dad was Einstein. Everything he said happened. He said, ‘If you give the Marines 100 percent, they’re going to give you back 150 ‘cause that’s what it is.’ It’s what he said that happened.
“Would I do things differently? Probably. I would have probably taken my folks’ advice and gone to college and got a commission right out of college. But I probably wouldn’t have met my wife, either. Life has a way of just sorting things out. For me, it’s worked out greatly.”
As he says this, his smile comes back once more.
Writing: Max Milander
Photograph: Kalene Smith