HAMPTON | A Hampton man says he was grateful for two things while in Korea for 21 months.
"I thanked God for his protection every day, and for the U.S. mail service," said Murrel Symens, 85.
Symens was drafted into the Army at age 21. He was working on local farms when he received his orders, leaving on July 2, 1952.
"I knew it was going to happen," he said. "You just accept those things."
By the end of the first few weeks of basic training at Ft. Sill in Oklahoma, he and two other men from Mason City had grown homesick.
Although they weren't supposed to be more than 20 miles from the base, the three stretched that rule by more than 700 miles and chartered a plane to fly home. He walked to the drug store, surprising his future wife, Rosie.
After giving Symens money for the return trip, his father had stern words for him: go back and stay back. As far as he knows, the Army didn't find out his excursion because he returned to the base when he was supposed to.
Symens took survey training during the last few weeks of boot camp.
"We never really knew what we were supposed to survey and we never learned much," he said. "We were out in an open field and spent most of our time looking through our binoculars at officers' housing nearby."
He and Rosie were married on Nov. 11 -- Veterans Day -- two days after he returned home from basic training.
His company was divided in half, with deployments to Germany and Korea, before leaving Ft. Sill. He left for Korea in December 1952 on a ship with more than 5,000 other men.
Of the 5,000 -- who were stacked in bunks of five -- Symens said at least 4,000, including himself, were seasick.
"The first three days we hit really rough seas," he said. "I was sick the first few days but got over it quick, once the weather settled down."
Upon arrival about two weeks later, he was assigned as a forward adviser. He worked along the 38th parallel in an outpost surrounded by sandbags, observing where enemy fire was coming from. Symens and the others would take turns squeezing through a small tunnel for a four-hour shift.
He pushed a button to activate microphones on a recorder in the command post whenever he found an enemy firing range.
"Remember this was 1950, and this was the best equipment the Army had to detect enemy fire at the time," Symens said.
The little boxes overlooking North Korea were to remain pitch-black during observation.
"I didn't smoke but it was a real problem for some of the guys," Symens said.
After the armistice was signed in July 1953, Symens was relieved of outpost duties, instead driving officers around the mountainous terrain.
He savored letters he received from Rosie.
"She was really good about writing me," Symens said. "The mail call was important and helped me get through it."
He returned home via ship in December 1953 to Camp Carson in Colorado. Since he had served in a combat zone, three months were taken off his 24-month contract.
Upon his discharge from the Army in April 1954, Symens was eager to return to the field. He farmed for at least 50 years.
"I'm glad I could serve my country," he said. "I never had any bad thoughts about it."
Symens was honored along with other Iowa Korean War veterans during a ceremony in Des Moines in 2013, where he was presented a medal and a certificate.