Clifford Pederson is able to smile and laugh.
For that, he is thankful. Considering all he's been through and his service to the country, that is not a small feat. He is thankful to be alive.
Pederson, 90, is a U.S. Army veteran of the Korean War, wounded in 1951 and a recipient of the Purple Heart. While fighting in Korea's Iron Triangle - which today straddles the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea - a grenade blast between Pederson's legs changed his life and ended his time in combat. He's been nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor, something fewer than 4,000 service members have received since the award was created in 1863.
Since then, Pederson has had good days and rough times. A good day was certainly May 7, when he boarded a plane with his son, Dave, and traveled to Washington, D.C., on the Midwest Honor Flight to visit national landmarks, including the Korean War Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the National Mall. Police escorts stopped traffic and zoomed the group's buses through the city.
"It drove home how important we were," he said. "We were going through red lights, and it was all for us."
On this Memorial Day weekend, Pederson said his time in war was not a good experience because of his personal outcome, but it's not something he regrets, either. He speaks freely and said he knows talking about his experiences with others is therapeutic.
For a man who was 22 when he was wounded, war was a "wake-up call about life."
"It was not all good, but it was an education, and you can appreciate the good days," he said. "The fact that I got wounded, that's just part of the game. I'm glad to be alive. ... You can see how I feel, and you can see that I'm glad to be here."
A change of plans
The Korean War, which started in June 1950, altered Pederson's plans. He grew up near Flandreau and was hoping to get married before he was drafted into service.
"I was going with the tide," he said. "I had no choice, and I had to go."
At the time Pederson was called into action, he was working as a road construction timekeeper and was admittedly not in very good shape. Some of his training was done with the South Dakota National Guard and an engineering company, he said, and that involved building bridges.
He got to Seattle and was preparing to ship overseas when Army officials began to look at Pederson's records and noticed he didn't have any field experience. Pederson was supposed to go into the infantry to combat situations.
"So they pulled me out, and my bag went to Korea," he said. "We went out in the field for a few minutes so that they could put in my records that I had been out in the field, and I went right out to the front lines."
In Korea, Pederson was feeling the effects of grueling work. He was worn out carrying 30-caliber machine gun rounds in canisters that had 250 rounds in each can up a large hill.
"When you're 22 years old, your body is real receptive to that change," he said. "But by the time I left there, I was running up and down those hills with a machine gun on my back."
Pederson described a lot of his time on the front lines as being mostly boring. He wasn't a smoker while in the United States, but picked up the habit in Korea in part because cigarettes were free.
"You wait for the enemy to come through there and you twiddle your thumbs," he said.
Pederson admits that he's struggled at times to live with the realities of war. He was a machine gunner for a time while in Korea, and he recalled a time where a man with binoculars helped him sight in his shot while the adversary vacated its position on a ridge.
"The guy with the binoculars was telling me left, right, up, down, and I just kept shooting until there was no more activity over there," he said.
When Pederson and his colleagues advanced their position, North Koreans shot back at him.
"It was the bareside of the hill. The only thing there was the dead bodies, so I just got down until the shooting stopped," he said. "And when I got up, my uniform was full of blood. ... That, I'm still dealing with."
'Hurt pretty bad'
Pederson's life did change on Aug. 31, 1951. On that day, Pederson, a corporal in the 17th Infantry's Buffalo Regiment and a squad leader, was leading his men when the attack started. A medic in Pederson's regiment was hit by a concussion grenade and was sliding back toward him. Pederson, who said he already had shrapnel in his back, grabbed him and pulled him to safety.
That act of valor, if validated, could earn Pederson the Medal of Honor. But Pederson's family has not been able to corroborate the story with that medic.
In the midst of that battle, Pederson had a grenade go off. He said the man in front of him was shot and killed and remembers "hurting pretty bad," but waiving off a medic. He got back to the support troops, and when he took his pants down, he witnessed the extent of the wounds.
"I was all blown to hell," he said, describing his groin region.
That was the end for Pederson's combat time. He was operated on in Korea and recovered in Japan for about a month before being sent to Fort Carson, Colorado, for permanent surgery. Today, Pederson commends his surgeon at Fort Carson.
"I felt thankful that I had this guy for a surgeon because he went to the extra effort for my benefit," he said.
That would be proven to Pederson some weeks later, he recalled. He was in his medical ward at Fort Carson and an inspector general was on hand, when the surgeon and the inspector general both came over to him.
"The doctor got up to me and said, 'Drop your pants, Pederson. I want to show the general my pride and joy,'" he said with a big laugh.
Once he was released, Pederson had about five months of his enlistment remaining. He worked on typing instruction manuals for officer training until he was discharged from service.
Pederson has a scrapbook that includes a handful of pages from his time in Korea. On the first page is a notice from his hometown newspaper in Flandreau that he was wounded in action. There's photos of him standing in the chow line waiting for food - a rarity for a front-line soldier to get a hot meal - and Pederson with a machine gun and with his fellow soldiers, including a Filipino squad leader.
There's also paper money, both Korean and special military U.S. currency. The back half of the book features pictures from his recent trip to Washington, D.C., with his fellow servicemembers, his family members, and a few sights from national landmarks.
A value in the stories
Although he jokes that he's a 90-year-old cripple, staying busy has personified the rest of Pederson's life.
When he returned from the Army, he worked as a machinist and in maintenance jobs in Mitchell. Along with his wife of 65 years, Esther, the Pedersons had three boys and had farm animals and a barn on land where Dakota Wesleyan University's indoor fieldhouse now sits. He was a scout leader for the Boy Scouts.
Pederson has also let go of a few vices that were once big parts of his life. He stopped smoking cigarettes when his wife said he could buy something nice with that money, that led to "the nicest boat on Lake Mitchell," he said.
He also said he is an alcoholic who once loved whiskey in his 20s, 30s and 40s. He stopped many years ago after he ended up in a coronary care unit after a night of drinking.
"The doctor said, 'Cliff, you have to quit drinking, or you're going to die,'" Pederson recalled.
He jokes about how his whole life is on the iPad, and he likes to play games on it, but he once came across a game that involved shooting. That brought back bad memories to the point where he lost 25 pounds and couldn't sleep, and Pederson said he visited a psychotherapist.
Pederson said he's found a value in getting his stories out and sharing whatever knowledge he could get out from it.
"If you don't get it out, you can have issues," he said. "I've had to keep working at it."
Today, Pederson has one hobby that takes up most of his time: his quilting. Pederson makes a special kind of blue denim quilts. He's made more than 200 quilts and said he has a list for about seven to nine more. He uses a historic Sears and Roebuck sewing machine that has been loyal to him for years.
As for his patriotism, Pederson said he appreciates that the United States has kept war off its shores since World War II. He wants to keep communism elsewhere.
"That's how I can accept that experience, because we're doing that over there," he said. "I did what I was asked to do."