SYRACUSE -- Upon returning home from the Vietnam War as a munitions specialist for 25 months, Larry Kerr, of Syracuse, said his wife, ShuRee and his two kids saved his life in the years after the harrowing experience.
However, it was the 1968 Shelby Mustang GT 350K he bought when he returned home that ended up keeping him alive in his later years. The car has become a legacy for the family, having been a part of their lives for more than 40 years.
It even was shipped across the globe when Kerr was stationed in Turkey and Japan in the U.S. Air Force. The Mustang survived floods and earthquakes while overseas, even having its motor rebuilt while in Turkey, which meant having the parts shipped from the States. Kerr was transferred to Hill Air Force Base in 1983.
"The Mustang has been on active duty more than most airmen because of the places I've been stationed for active duty," said Kerr, 64. "Now, it's almost like a family member because it's been in our family for so long, going through all the good and bad."
At age 20, Kerr got cancer resulting from his exposure to Agent Orange while in Vietnam and Okinawa. Later, at age 32, he had a heart attack, resulting from a disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Doctors gave Kerr only three to five years to live, so he was medically discharged from the military.
Not wanting to sit around waiting for what seemed inevitable, he kept busy by tinkering with his car. He even worked on a dozen Mustangs for other people, giving him the opportunity to keep his mind off his worries. That kept him going for far more years than anyone expected.
"I had to give up my sports, so this was my replacement hobby, and it has got me through some rough times," Kerr said.
Looking back over the years, he recalls coming home from Vietnam not sure what he was going to do with his life.
"I was a mess, having spent 25 months using weapons of destruction, and my wife and kids literally saved me from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Then, it was my car that kept me alive" through the medical problems.
After receiving his heart diagnosis, he decided to start taking his car to various car shows. To date, he has taken his car to more than 1,000 car shows in Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming and Colorado. His garage walls are filled with dash plaques and awards from each show.
Kerr said it's always an honor to receive awards for the car, but that's not why he does the car shows.
"Behind every dash plaque is a story," Kerr said. "At each show, you make new friends and you always see old friends. It's an experience to associate with other people who enjoy cars as a hobby as much as we do."
Back in the early 2000s, Kerr spent two years completing a nearly ground-up restoration of the Mustang. The car has been through four engines and now sits at 574,472 miles.
Now as a grandfather of six, Kerr has outlived his doctor's diagnosis by more than 20 years.
His most thrilling moment with the car was the weeks he spent traveling in the Mustang with his wife to the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., last spring.
"I don't have the words to describe what the experience was like," Kerr said.
He spent 41/2 hours at the wall, looking for names of the people he knew.
"I hoped it would help me heal, and I think it did for the most part. It gave me another perspective seeing some of the other veterans visiting the wall, and made me realize that I wasn't alone as one of the survivors, as I was surrounded by others (just like me)."