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100-year-old Richland veteran fought in 3 wars. Now he’s fighting coronavirus

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus. This virus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China. (CDC/TNS)

George Jenkins woke up at 1 a.m. Friday to celebrate his birthday.

He was turning 100 years old, and worried about dying in his sleep before seeing the big day.

Jenkins made it.

But now — after flying military planes during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars — the Richland man is fighting another kind of battle on the homefront.

Jenkins tested positive for COVID-19, joining more than 101,000 of his fellow Americans who’ve been hit with this new and deadly version of the coronavirus.

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He got the results Thursday in the final hours of his 99th year.

Mark Jenkins says his dad is strong, and probably the healthiest person he knows over age 65.

“The children of the Great Depression were a very, very strong, resilient group of people. They’re also the ones who were our soldiers in the second world war, many of them then in Korea, and in the early years of Vietnam,” said Mark Jenkins of Kennewick. “This is a group of people that have done difficult things most of their lives. And surviving the coronavirus is gentle compared to the many other things they have done and survived.”

“They’ve been through so much, so long, this is nothing,” he added.

Jeanne and George Jenkins have been in quarantine at Bonaventure Senior Living since March 17.

That’s when Bonaventure called Mark Jenkins and suggested he take his father to be tested because of a slightly elevated temperature and a little phlegm. Jenkins suspects his dad had it for at least a week before, but said the symptoms were so mild.

The first COVID-19 death in the Tri-Cities was a Bonaventure resident, which as of Friday reported having nine positive cases, including two who have died.

Jenkins believes he knows where and who his dad got the virus from but did not want to disclose it to the Tri-City Herald.

He said while people like his dad are extremely lucky because they only show mild symptoms, it needs to be taken seriously even by the young and healthy because it is so easy to pass on to someone with a compromised immune system.

The family didn’t want the pandemic to overshadow the fact George Jenkins hit the century mark.

His long-planned birthday bash was canceled in light of the emergency orders that have shuttered businesses and banned social gatherings across Washington state.

But his loved ones made sure the couple knows they’re not in this alone.

They’ve been sending George’s favorite meals via food delivery apps, and on Friday he received a birthday cake decorated with red, white and blue stars and cookies with the Air Force symbols.

Navy to Air Force

George Jenkins joined the Navy Reserve in 1938 with a couple of his buddies, but got out a couple of years later after his commanding officer warned they would go to active duty and do mine-sweeping work.

He signed up for a college flight training program, and then switched to the cadet program with the Army Air Corps. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant, got his aviator badge and was off.

“One of the things about dad was he had a gift. He could fly anything, and he could navigate,” said Mark Jenkins.

George Jenkins service as a fighter pilot took him around the world, flying planes like the B-25, B-17, B-24, P-51, P-63, KC-97 and C-47.

During World War II, he ferried new planes from Montana to Alaska to be picked up by the Soviet Army.

Franklin County farm

He got out of the service after the war ended, and eventually bought farmland in north Franklin County off Ringold Road.

But George Jenkins was talked into returning to active duty, and he did it for nearly another 20 years.

He flew dangerous combat missions in Korea, and was part of a special operations unit during the Vietnam war working in Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.

“He was doing what he loved to do and most of the time his way,” said Mark Jenkins, noting his dad was considered a reserve officer on active duty.

He retired from the Air Force in the early 1970s as a lieutenant colonel, and returned to Franklin County to farm his property. He later became a flight instructor before eventually retiring.

Together, he and Jeanne have a large family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren supporting them.

Mark Jenkins, who also has been in isolation with his wife since March 17, said it’s because of his father’s life experiences that he doesn’t think the coronavirus is too huge of a concern for him.

“That’s not much different than, ‘We’re evacuating the base. Everyone is on alert. It’s the Cuban Missile Crisis,’” he said. “… He’s used to getting that kind of news.”

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© 2020 Tri-City Herald