WARREN - George Rossi was 17 when he decided to enlist in the U.S. Army.
A week after his 18th birthday, he was headed to Okinawa to take part in what became one of the longest wars in American history, the Vietnam War.
Rossi arrived in Vietnam the fall of 1966. It was a year after he volunteered to go, but he hadn't been old enough at 17 to enter a combat zone.
Tribune Chronicle / Bonnie L. Hazen
George Rossi, 65, of Warren, looks over photos from his service with the U.S. Army as a Specialist 5. Rossi served in the Vietnam War from 1966 to 1968.
, enlisting at the age of 17.
"I just wanted the adventure of it, being young and dumb," Rossi said with a chuckle.
He also came from a military family, his father and three uncles having served in World War II and his mom as a Rosie the Riveter.
Rossi, a Specialist 5, was assigned to a helicopter unit - the155th Assault Helicopter Company responsible for dropping off and picking up troops as well as providing support with gunships.
He first flew over on a civilian plane, landing in Saigon.
"When the doors opened to that plane, I said 'Uh-oh, what did I get myself into,'" Rossi recalled.
Rossi didn't meet up with his unit for several weeks. Unable to decipher his orders, he accidentally got on a bus filled with Army Airborne soldiers.
"My first mistake over there, I guess," Rossi smiled.
Rossi's helicopter unit was positioned in what's known as the Central Highlands land comprised of a series of plateaus that border the lower part of Laos and northeastern Cambodia.
"It was a beautiful spot," Rossi said.
The highlands are home to several indigenous tribes, and Rossi said his unit had the most contact with the Montagnards, a French word meaning mountain people.
"It was like going back in time," Rossi said, recalling the tribesmen wore loin cloths, carried crossbows and arrows crafted out of bamboo and lived in houses raised on stilts. "It was really something."
Getting used to the heat and humidity of Vietnam was difficult, Rossi said, and soldiers had to shake their boots out before putting them on to ensure scorpions weren't making a home in them.
"Getting supplies was bad where we were at ... the clothes rotting off of you," he said. "It was hard getting clothes, boots. You mainly went without it.
"The food was terrible," he said, still able to remember the taste of dried fish left over from World War II that was once served to him. "(The cook) had to soak it in water for three weeks."
Although the soldiers would sometimes receive a treat of beer and steak, Rossi missed the taste of his mom's spaghetti the most, and he once had to eat Spam for three weeks straight.
But the worst thing about serving in Vietnam was the constant volley of enemy attacks.
"There were so many of them," he said. "You kind of sleep with one ear open."
A bad situation in particular was the Tet Offensive, a large wave of attacks that occurred in January 1968.
But one of the roughest nights his regiment had, Rossi said, happened in March, where his compound was subjected to a multiple-round mortar attack.
"When they shoot mortar rounds at you, you get in the habit of rolling off your cot," he said, and you then proceed to pull the mattress over your head and look for the best place for cover.
This habit was so ingrained that even after he came home from the war, he found himself unable to relax, and once sought cover during a visit to his parents' house in Warren. He had been home two days, and when a car backfired. Rossi said his family found him in a bedroom, where he had hit the floor and pulled his mattress over himself.
Rossi left Vietnam without a scratch, and he said several close calls were what contributed to him being given the nickname "Lucky George."
Once he dropped his hat and bent down to pick it up just as a sniper round whizzed over his head.
Another time, he was supposed to go up in a helicopter with a group of soldiers until someone asked if they could have his spot the whole unit was killed.
Once a mortar round hit the spot where he was lying minutes before, killing another one of his comrades.
As for being lucky, Rossi attributes it to something else.
"God was on my side, too, I believe," he said. "It wasn't my time."
But although he wasn't injured during his time in Vietnam, he was exposed to Agent Orange, something that has resulted in health issues like diabetes and heart disease.
"I got wounded in a different way and didn't know it till 40 years later," he said. "I'm not the only one."
Rossi credits the Trumbull County Veterans Service Commission for helping ensure he received his disability, as well as other family members, such as helping his mom with his dad's funeral and helping his cousins when his uncle died.
He also struggled with adapting to civilian life when he first returned, feeling naked without his weapon and becoming very jumpy and hyper-aware of his surroundings.
"As the years go by, it's less and less," he said