John Mehling keeps a very special brown scrapbook close by.
In his room at Pine Ridge Rehabilitation and Nursing Center at Spectrum Health Lakeland, he flips through the pages filled with black-and-white photos and other mementos from his time serving with the U.S. Army in the Korean War.
“He remembers everything,” said his wife, Carole Mehling, who lives a short distance away in Sodus, Michigan. “When we were first married, he spent hours on that picture book.”
In the decades since he compiled the scrapbook in the early 1970s, it has become a prized possession to John—a way to remember the time he proudly served his country.
And in the five years since he has lived at Pine Ridge, it’s become a point of connection for fellow residents and caregivers alike—a window into the 94-year-old’s past.
His speech has become difficult to understand, but he still reminisces.
“It’s amazing the memories he has retained,” Deb Ersland, Pine Ridge recreational coordinator, said. “Every time he talks about it, he gets emotional. He loves sharing his story, but he’s so humble about it.”
A Lansing native, John first enlisted in the Army at age 18. He was discharged after about a year of service because World War II had ended, but he re-enlisted in 1950 to serve in the Korean War.
“I wanted to do my part,” John said.
He underwent training in medical and surgical services. While in Korea, he worked with a portable medical station with the 9th Infantry, 9th Medical Company, stationed in Wanju, Korea. They saw countless wounded soldiers coming in by truck, ambulance and helicopter.
One poignant page in his scrapbook shows a photo of John and others from his unit, surrounding a bandaged and wounded soldier they had cared for. Someone asked them to pose for a photo.
Under the photo, he has written on a white index card in impeccable printing: “I should not have smiled for his condition was serious. I hope he lived.”
When asked about that photo now, John said, with tears in his eyes, “I remember it as if it was today.”
John’s story is featured in the book “Lest We Forget: Book of Heroes, Volume 5: Memories, Pictures and Stories of Southwest Michigan Veterans.” It’s a publication of the Southwest Michigan chapter of Lest We Forget, a nonprofit founded to promote patriotism.
In the book, John also shares the memorable story of when an opposing unit came close enough to fire mortar rounds at the medical unit, sending John and his comrades diving into a ditch for safety.
“We had gunfire all around us,” John said. “They were all around us.”
They stayed sheltered throughout the night.
“We all made it,” John said.
His scrapbook also includes photos of rice fields and other landscapes, children from neighboring villages, performers in a USO show in the summer of 1953, and even a pristine bulletin from the 1953 Easter service for the 9th Infantry Regiment.
‘An amazing man’
John left Korea in August 1953 and returned to Michigan.
With his service benefits, he attended Michigan State University, earning a degree in biology. For the next 30 years, he worked for the state of Michigan in Lansing as a bacteriologist, researching diseases such as smallpox and diphtheria.
He met Carole in 1973 at a young people’s function at People’s Church in Lansing. They married Aug. 25, 1973. Carole taught kindergarten through second grade in Lansing.
They lived in Sodus for years, until John moved into Pine Ridge in 2018.
In 1985, doctors diagnosed him with Pick’s disease, a type of degenerative dementia that has impacted his speech and mobility. Carole cared for him for many years in their home, but he went to Pine Ridge for rehabilitation after a fall, and the two decided he should stay.
Since then, he has made friends with residents and team members alike, taking part in the center’s activities for veterans, concerts and bingo. He can often be spotted with his Korean War veteran cap on.
“He has a lot of buddies here,” Carole said. “It does my heart good.”
The recreation team at Pine Ridge works hard to honor John and the 14 other veterans who live there.
Partnering with community organizations such as Lest We Forget, the Bridgman and Stevensville American Legion Auxiliaries and others, they strive to honor the military service of men and women, Ersland said.
“It has been my passion for many years to work with veterans and help them and serve them in any way I can,” Ersland said.
She volunteered at Pine Ridge for years before officially joining the recreation team.
On Veterans Day, Pine Ridge hosts an annual ceremony to recognize each veteran. They also set up the Missing Man or Fallen Comrade table, honoring fallen, missing or imprisoned U.S. military service members.
Carole tells the story of when she recently took John to visit the Korean War monument in St. Joseph, Michigan. They arrived in the fall to discover it covered in leaves.
John asked Carole if they could clean it off.
Sure enough, Carole saw a groundskeeper close by, so they asked him if they could borrow a broom.
John used that broom to sweep the leaves off the monument, from his wheelchair, honoring his fellow veterans.
Ronda Holmes, Pine Ridge quality of life supervisor, said the cooperation with local veterans organizations has enriched life for the whole facility.
“John’s an amazing man,” Holmes said.