Marine Corps, Vietnam shaped Jerry Pearson’s servant nature
May 21, 2014
By Neil Pierson
In a small box that’s usually tucked away in his home library, Issaquah attorney Jerry Pearson has several keepsakes from his three-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Among the items are a set of dog tags made to commemorate three of his fellow Marines; a brass dragon head he found in a village; and the two Purple Hearts he was awarded for combat-related wounds in Vietnam.
The dragon head, in particular, brings back a flood of memories for Pearson, who was born in Seattle before moving to Issaquah as a small child in 1951. He associates it with Ron Dexter and Lester Bell, two members of the Fifth Marine Division who were shipped to the jungles of Southeast Asia and never came home.
“In some ways, you feel really proud of having served, and in other ways you feel all of these losses and confusions,” Pearson said.
He graduated from Issaquah High School in 1964, when the Vietnam War was gaining traction in America, and his modest 2.6 grade-point average reflected his disinterest in school. He dropped out of the University of Washington after one quarter, and didn’t last long at The Boeing Co.
That’s when he found the Marines and a chance to connect with his family heritage, which has military connections dating to the Civil War. Pearson’s father was in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
“The veteran thing, to me, is almost like a connective tissue kind of issue,” he explained.
Among his memorabilia is a 1965 article from the Honolulu Advertiser. Pearson’s unit arrived in Hawaii aboard the USS Iwo Jima, and he and several Marines were walking along the beach from Pearl Harbor to Waikiki when a reporter stopped them to ask questions.
In the article, the other Marines expressed some fear and hesitation about their upcoming deployment, but not Pearson: “We’re all very anxious to get there,” he’s quoted as saying. “…There’s a real purpose to going over there, and I’m all for it.”
Nearly 50 years later, Pearson is a bit apologetic, but mainly steadfast toward his feelings at the time.
“That’s what it was in the moment — gung ho,” he said. “Absolute clarity.”
Forming connections with men from different states, races and religions is something Pearson continues to cherish about his Marine Corps days. One of the deepest connections was with Lester Bell, a young African-American from Miami.
Racial strife was consuming the U.S. in the 1960s, but Pearson felt he avoided much of that growing up in Issaquah. Bell and other black Marines had a singing group modeled on The Temptations, and Pearson was invited to join.
“He taught me how to dance, and I taught my grandkids how to dance the way Bell taught me to dance,” Pearson said, strutting around the room.
One night, Bell and Pearson were on guard duty in a bunker outside of Da Nang. To pass the time, they pulled a tarp over the bunker so they could turn on a light and play cards.
“Every once in a while,” Pearson said, “we’d throw a hand grenade out the window, and it would roll down the hill and blow up. And we’d get a call from (a superior) going, ‘What the hell is going on out there?’
‘Well, sir, we thought we heard something out there.’
‘Oh, OK, good men.’
“We’d pull the tarp back down and play cards.”
Bad times often overshadowed good ones, of course.
On the way to Vietnam, the troops stopped in the Philippines to get acclimatized to the tropical heat and humidity. Pearson saw men throwing coins into a river. It took him a few days to realize it was a river of sewage.
“They would throw coins in there, and some of the young Filipino kids would dive in to get the coins,” he said. “… It’s almost like, if you were from a different culture or a different race, you weren’t one of them. Then, when we got into Vietnam, it got worse.”
When Ron Dexter — Pearson’s friend from South Dakota — was killed in combat, it spurred an angry outburst from another Marine.
“The next day, he went through a village and opened fire on people he should not have opened fire on,” Pearson said. “The discipline … between when to pull the trigger and when not to, it’s largely based on your training, but it’s also influenced by your emotional life.”
The war devolved into a cat-and-mouse game, he explained. The Americans would capture a hill, for example, then retreat and allow the enemy to retake it. That pattern repeated itself, with a few Marines killed every time.
“After a while, and I don’t know how long it took, it became not about American foreign policy, not about the war, it became about survival,” Pearson said.
It took Pearson nearly 20 years to begin dealing with the psychological effects of Vietnam. His sense of humor evaporated; he wasn’t comfortable being in a room with a lot of strangers. His intensity sparked a “volcanic reaction” in others, he said, which contributed to his first marriage ending in divorce after 17 years.
Working with a Veterans Administration psychologist, Pearson recounted the gory details that led to post-traumatic stress disorder. It was difficult, he said, because veterans don’t want to cry, don’t want to betray the military’s ultra-masculine culture. But he began to understand the consequences of walking around with unchecked aggression.
Today, Pearson specializes in personal injury claims, and works alongside second wife Michele at Pearson Law Firm in Issaquah. They have been married 25 years. His Marine Corps background likely pushed him into law, he said, because of the similarities.
“There’s something about being able to do something that remedies a problem or prevents a harm,” he explained, “and then using the information to show people how to do things in a more safe way.”