Decorated Vietnam veteran Gary McArthur doesn't come from a military family and never dreamed of joining the military as child.
But the draft made military service a reality for McArthur, 71, and thousands of other young American men in the late 1960s.
"Back then, you were drafted as soon as your student deferment ended," said McArthur, a University of Florida graduate who joined the Army in 1968, and served as an officer in the 1st Air Cavalry Division.
The Pensacola native will share stories of his time as "civilian soldier" during Thursday night's Heroes Among Us speaker series in downtown Pensacola.
The monthly outdoor speakers series in Pensacola's Veterans Memorial Park is sponsored by the Marine Corps League and draws on the war stories of area's many veterans to raise money for projects that help veterans.
McArthur, a Pensacola native who served in the Army from 1968 to 1971, said he has a unique perspective because he was not a career military officer.
"Lots of kids who didn't want to go to Vietnam went to Canada. The men I was fighting with might not have understood everything about the war but they were Americans and were willing to offer their lives if they had to. My loyalty was to them and my concern was for their safety and welfare," said McArthur who described himself as a "civilian soldier."
McArthur led men as a 24-year-old lieutenant while serving in the Army's 7th Calvary Unit, the most decorated unit operating in Vietnam. The Air Cavalry Division was featured in the 2002 Mel Gibson film, "We Were Soldiers."
McArthur received the Silver Star for his actions when his unit's air base on the Cambodian border was attacked.
"At the time, I didn't think about how dangerous it was. In retrospect, I feel fortunate to have come out alive," said McArthur, who credits his wife of 49 years for helping him to deal with the trauma of war.
"I'm sure it all affected me, but I had a wonderful wife who supported me. I had a great job and a family," he said.
After the war, McArthur had a career in the wholesale bakery business and retired as the operations manager for Savannah, Georgia, bakery before moving back to Pensacola.
McArthur and his wife, Jeanne, have three sons and seven grandchildren.
The Heroes Among Us 1st Air Cavalry Night starts at 6 p.m. on Thursday at Veterans Memorial Park, 200 S. 10th Ave. in Pensacola.
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