Veteran, Marlin Elroy Yelton, Jr., is an active, lifetime member of the VFW, American Legion, DAV, and Moose Lodge. He chairs a Parkinson’s Support Group at Hope Hospice Center as well dabbling in wood carving, target shooting, wine making, and is even writing a book about toys from his childhood. A man of many interests and hobbies, Marlin Elroy Yelton, Jr. resides in LaBelle, with his lovely wife of 30 years, Cor-Nan. They are often seen playing bluegrass and country music together at many different local events, as well as at Eastside Baptist Church.
As a youth he suffered the loss of his mother to cancer, and then his grandmother, and was placed in a foster home on a dairy farm. His foster father quickly taught him about hard work while mending fences, baling hay, and all the other rigorous chores that come along with farm life. When his foster father passed away, his mother wanted to take a cake decorating class offered at the night school but didn’t want to go alone. Then 15 years old, Yelton reluctantly accompanied her and learned to decorate cakes. Cake decorating actually continues to be another hobby of his. Then, at the age of 17, while in tech school learning about drafting, his class was visited by representatives from Boeing and Kenworth. They told the class they would only be hired at the age of 21 with their military obligations already behind them. Yelton describes there being a spray of gravel in the parking lots, as students rushed themselves to the recruiting office. Yelton’s Army recruiter found one Cartographic drafting spot open, and that was the start of a lifelong career in mapping and he urges anyone looking to enlist in the future, to focus on learning a skill that can provide a career when you get out.
“I loved it, every day was a good day, which was important to me because my dad hated the day before he opened his eyes,” Yelton said, “and I thought that’s no way to live.” He says that he did fine in basic training and on to advanced training, but there were many that did not know how to make a bed or had never driven a car. Adjusting to military life was much harder on them. “I was the littlest kid in the whole company, skinny, maybe 117 pounds,’” Yelton recalls. He remembers getting in trouble for the way his uniforms hung on his wiry frame and having to altering them to the point that the back pockets were nearly touching. He was then reprimanded for unauthorized tailoring of his uniform. Other than that, he did well- no stranger to hard work and discipline after his time on the dairy farm.
“I volunteered to go to Nam’ because I felt obligated. It was my duty to go. I was not worried about danger,” he said, as he reminisced about feeling absolutely invincible and bullet-proof at the age of 26. It wasn’t easy, he found out after receiving a “Dear John Letter” from his wife at the time while in Vietnam, that possessing a good sense of humor was an important quality to have during deployment. Yelton says he wished he would have kept a journal for every time he heard a joke. He says he would love to have written a book titled, “Jokes I heard when I was in the Army.” His sense of humor didn’t always bring comedic relief, however. He laughed heartily, as he told me about the time that he and his buddies had decided to create a fictional solider, just as they had seen on the popular tv show MASH. They thought it would be hilarious to do the same, listing their non-existent officer with a top-secret security clearance. They got into serious trouble for that stunt.
He goes on to describe how they operated, out of a mobile mapping train, consisting of two and a half ton trucks with expandable sides that were filled with giant cameras, printing presses, and other cartography equipment. “Some of the tools we used then, are now in the Smithsonian. Which is kind of depressing,” he chuckles. They used aerial photos to create charts and maps used to, “keep commanders abreast of who was where and doing what,” as Yelton puts it. He says it was difficult keeping up with Patton and where the tanks where, and that they often got behind, and were left scrambling to catch up.
I asked what it was like for him, when he finally returned from Vietnam. He says it was uneventful, as he caught a bus at about 2 a.m. and quickly got out of uniform. There was no welcome home, but he managed to avoid the protesters.
Yelton received many awards and citations for his service, including a Vietnam Service Medal, Meritorious Unit Citation, National Defense Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal (7th Award), Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, Noncommissioned Officer Professional Development Ribbon, Expert Qualification Badge (Rifle M-16), Overseas Service Ribbon, Army Commendation Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, and the Bronze Star.
Transitioning to civilian life was not as hard for Yelton as it has been for others. “I left the Army on a Friday and Monday went to work for GE Aerospace.” He says having to dress in “greens” and following a chain of command at his new company was similar to being in the Army.
Since retirement, he has remained busy and says he tries not to have a free minute. He urges other veterans, especially those who may be struggling, to find ways to stay busy. Recommending that they join an organization and get active, or even just for them to get out and find something that brings them joy. This wonderfully cheerful and optimistic man says that even after all challenges he faced during his time in the Army, he would without question, go back and do it all over again- though, this time, he says, he’d take more chances.
Thank you, Marlin Elroy Yelton, Jr., and all veterans, for your service.