TAMPA — For more than half a century, Raymond Loring Chambers believed he was one of the fortunate few who survived World War II unscathed.
For that, the 93-year-old Navy veteran was grateful. When his three years were up, Chambers returned to Michigan in 1946. He was 21, had seen combat, but came home with no medals. He just put the war behind him.
Chambers became a father, went to work selling soft serve ice cream in a traveling carnival, and learned about "love at first sight" the day he met the animal keepers' daughter. They married four weeks after the day they met. They have now spent 60 years together, raising children and grandchildren in their Gibsonton home.
"I was lucky," he said. "I've lived a wonderful life."
Turns out, he wasn't done with the war. Nor did he actually escape injury.
Tears welled in Chambers' eyes as U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, presented him Friday with the medals he never knew he had earned while fighting in the Pacific theater. The medal ceremony took place at the Jan Kaminis Platt Regional Library as Chambers' wife, children and grandchildren looked on.
Chambers was only 18 when he was first deployed to fight with the Navy special forces alongside the 5th Marine Division. Yet he survived one of the theater's bloodiest clashes in 1945: the Battle of Iwo Jima.
"During this brutal battle that went on for weeks Mr. Chambers was actually shot in the leg," Castor said. "But he's a tough guy and at that time, when the doctors looked at him, he said he was fine and he kept on fighting. He kept on serving."
But it wasn't until a decade ago that shrapnel was discovered in his leg — six decades after he last saw combat.
After a long confirmation process, the Department of Defense granted Chambers' the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with Two Bronze Stars — one for his "heroic" achievement and service and one for his "meritorious" achievement and service in a combat zone, Castor said. He was also presented with the American Campaign Medal, the Combat Action Ribbon and the World War II Victory Medal.
Castor recounted Chambers' memories of the infamous battle, stories his children and grandchildren have come to know by heart that now ends with a twist.
The troops were surprised when they landed on the southern beaches of the island of Iwo Jima and were met with 15-foot dunes of slippery, powder-soft volcanic ash instead of the gritty sand beaches of the states. They didn't see the enemy troops that watched their every move, hunkered down in bunkers and surrounded by explosives buried in the sand, encased in plastic to elude metal detectors.
It was one such explosive that showered Chambers with shrapnel during the thick of the fight, driving fragments of plastic into his helmet, neck and shoulders.
He always talked to his wife and children about his time in the war, but rarely spoke of the brutality he witnessed, said his wife Mary Chambers. He's showed them the photo of him with a bandage on his leg, sitting on a tank on the island's coast. But he assumed he had just hurt himself. He didn't know it was a war wound.
"I guess once he was done with the war he was done," his wife said. "He wanted to move on with his life."
Then about a decade ago, he met Marine veteran Timothy Jay Read at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa. It was Read who recognized that Chambers should be recognized for his service, the family said. Read was the one who tracked down old military and medical records before contacting Castor's office.
Read understands that fate can work in mysterious ways. He was shot in the leg while serving in Afghanistan in 2010, and like Chambers he returned to combat. A few months later, Read stepped on a land mine and lost his leg.
But had he never suffered that injury, the 29-year-old Read said, he never would have met his wife, a specialist at the Haley. Then he never would have met his friend Ray.
And like Chambers, Read said he, too, fell in love at first sight.
"I can't put into words how much those relationships have allowed me to grow and look forward to the future instead of dwelling in the past," Read said, "because I was stuck in the past for a while.
"War teaches you how important people are, how important love is."