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'I joined the military in '44': Sam Zafran served in three major U.S. wars. Now he's helping honor lives lost at Arlington National Cemetery

Sam Zafran served his country in three major wars: World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War.

PHOENIX — The guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider in Arlington National Cemetery stay silent, walking the same route of 21 carefully placed steps, 21 heels falling on the granite. Never more, never less.

Until a veteran comes to stand at the rail.

Then, and only then, is a Tomb Guard allowed to deviate, and only in the slightest of ways: dragging their heel once in front of each veteran they pass.

On a sunny day in September, a heel dragged for Sam Zafran.

"I joined the military in '44," Sam said, sitting on his walker in the cemetery. "I started out with the New York Militia which this time you call the National Guard."

The Arizona Honor Guard took Sam Zafran and a lot of other veterans to Washington DC to see the monuments and memorials of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Sam served in all three.

Zafran joined up for World War II, served his country, and then continued serving in the next three wars. He's 96 years old, with a mind that remembers details like they happened yesterday.

When World War II ended, Zafran was in Berlin. A senior commander came up and asked for volunteers for the newly-formed US Constabulary. The Constabulary was basically a military police force for the newly-split city of Berlin.

“They call it a Cold War and they never realized that it actually was a war," Zafran said. "There would be a guard tower and they'd shoot a machine gun in front of us and the idea was that if you stopped, he had you trapped. You couldn't go any further."

"So we had our little wars," he said.

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Zafran served through the Korean War and was about to get out of the military. But then Vietnam came calling and he was told he was indispensable and asked to serve for six months.

Six months turned into a lot longer. Zafran took troops on patrol for sweeps as part of a signal battalion.

Sam made it home from all three wars, even as hundreds of thousands didn't.

Sam's son Mark came to help his dad walk to the National World War II Memorial.

"Last November we had a batch of COVID where he we thought we're gonna lose him," Mark said. "And he's still here."

After COVID there was a car accident that almost killed Sam. He wasn't expected to walk again.

Sam Zafran walked through the arches of the World War II memorial.

"To have him walk," Mark said. "And then to follow his footsteps to actually be able to bring him here is really cool."

Follow in his footsteps because Mark also served in the military for 39 years, and through every war since Vietnam.

"I was over in Iraq," Mark said. "We did a lot of good things over there."

All told, the Zafrans have been in every war the United States has fought since 1946.

"To be able to have this now and see the monument, it's really awesome," Mark said.

Years from now, it may be Mark who is in Sam's place, helped through Washington DC by his son or daughter. It may be Mark who visits the unbuilt memorials to the wars he fought in. And it may be Mark who sits or stands at the rail of the Tomb of the Unknowns and hears a scrape of the heel meant for him.

RELATED: He was a medic in America's 'Forgotten War.' He traveled to D.C. to see the memorial for the friends he lost.

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