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'I feel very fortunate': Perham grad and Marine Corps veteran Cory Lepisto recalls his years in the service

Cory Lepisto, a 2001 Perham High School graduate, served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2001 to 2006 and spent time in Africa, Egypt and Iraq.

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Today, 15 years after his service in the U.S. Marine Corps, 2001 Perham High School graduate Cory Lepisto still sends and receives messages every November to and from the people he served with, recalling their time together, remembering those who didn't come home, and honoring those who continue to serve. He lives near Detroit Lakes and is an active member of the Frazee-Vergas VFW Post 7702. (Contributed / Cory Lepisto / Perham Focus)
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Cory Lepisto feels “very, very fortunate” that his years of service in the United States Marine Corps never brought him into the thick of combat.

That doesn't mean those years were uneventful.

“I’ve heard it (said) many times that people that have made that commitment to join the military, they’ve written out a blank check to this country,” Lepisto said, “up to, for some of them, their own lives.”

Lepisto joined the Marines in 2001 — catching a flight to boot camp just five days after the fall of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. He signed up for delayed entry in October 2000, following the recommendations of a friend and Marine Corps recruiter. He graduated from Perham High School in 2001.

“I don’t regret it,” Lepisto said of his time in the military.

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First stationed in San Diego, Calif., he was deployed to the coast of Africa in 2003, on the USS Peleliu, and again in 2005, to Egypt and Iraq. His service also brought him to Australia, Singapore, Guam, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

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Cory Lepisto joined the U.S. Marine Corps in September 2001 after signing up through a delayed entry program. He graduated from Perham High School that same year. He's pictured here in those earlier days, with his friend, Tressa Leaders. (Contributed / Cory Lepisto / Perham Focus)

As a ground support service technician, Lepisto spent a lot of time on aircraft carriers, as well as time in the air on helicopters. Of all his chopper flights, his first one is the most memorable — and for good reason. It was a scary experience. One that he said, "broke me in to flying on helicopters really quick."

He recalls it like this: His HMM-163 squadron out of the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, in San Diego, was assigned to desert training within a month of his start there. The crews were split between helicopters after a mechanical issue, and Lepisto's helicopter started shaking. He noticed an officer tighten his seatbelt and tuck away his pencil and crossword puzzle, and saw an aerial observer in the back give a 'thumbs up' sign. Then he heard the crew chiefs in front say, “‘Strap up, we’re going down.’”

They made an emergency landing on the greens of a local fairway.

“There’s people teeing off and a helicopter comes in and lands on the golf course,” he said. It made headlines on CNN.

While the ordeal was jolting, Lepisto and the others got right back in the saddle, so to speak, and took another helicopter to the training site later that day. Apart from that initial flight, he usually enjoyed his time in the sky.

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“I actually miss flying on helicopters,” he said. “It was fun.”

One of his more memorable experiences in the military was attending multinational trainings in Egypt, including some on piloting helicopters. Another was a drug bust for $11 million worth of hash that happened while he was on an aircraft carrier near the Arabian Peninsula. And then during his second deployment, at the Al Asad Air Base, the second-largest U.S. air base in Iraq, when he gathered with a group in a makeshift hangar to watch 'shooting stars' dart across the sky — rockets that hit the base about a half-mile from their hangar.

“I feel very fortunate that in my time overseas, I didn’t see any close action to anything,” Lepisto said. He knows friends who weren't so lucky, and some who died while serving.

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Cory Lepisto, right, visits his family for a funeral and a baptism while on leave in April 2002. (Contributed / Cory Lepisto / Perham Focus)

For Lepisto, the most challenging part of his time in the service was being away from his family back home in the Perham, Frazee and New York Mills areas, especially around the holidays, when he was really missing them. And when he was able to talk to them, he said, he wasn't allowed to say where he was or reveal any specifics about what he was doing.

“These are my family and friends, and I can’t share everything with them,” Lepisto recalled.

After his time in the service was over, he was happy to return home. He lives and works just outside of Detroit Lakes today, and is an active member of the Frazee-Vergas VFW Post 7702. He made lasting connections and shared a camaraderie with his fellow Marines while he was on active duty, he said, and that's what he'll always remember best.

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It's been 15 years and still, every November, with the founding of the Marines and Veterans Day in mind, Lepisto sends and receives messages to and from the people he served with, recalling their time together, remembering those who didn't come home, and honoring those who continue to serve.

“It’s a big family,” he said.

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Cory Lepisto joined the U.S. Marine Corps in September 2001 after signing up through a delayed entry program. He graduated from Perham High School that same year. He's pictured here in those earlier days, with his friend, Tressa Leaders. (Contributed / Cory Lepisto / Perham Focus)

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Rebecca Mitchell is a Multimedia Reporter for the Wadena Pioneer Journal and Perham Focus. She loves capturing local stories through words, photos and videos, and providing resources for the community.
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