Al Nelson, of Burlington, served in the Marines during World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

On the 242nd anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Marine Corps, Gunnery Sgt. Alban “Al” Nelson Jr. of Burlington was honored for his service in three wars.

Nelson, 91, is believed to be the last living Marine in Iowa who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

On Friday morning at Memorial Auditorium, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa presented Nelson with an American flag that was flown in October from the U.S. Capitol to honor Nelson.

Ernst, an Iraq War veteran with the Iowa National Guard, called Nelson’s 25 years of military service a “tremendous achievement.”

The senator briefly recounted the story of how Nelson, raised in West Burlington, wound up in the Marine Corps instead of the Air Force, where he initially thought to enlist.

“Al hitchhiked to Ottumwa, Iowa, after he had finished high school, with a buddy, and they went to enlist in the Air Force as pilots,” Ernst said, looking back at Nelson to confirm his story. “However, the Air Force recruiting office was closed, but the Marine Corps office was open. And so you looked in, and there was a Marine in his dress blues and Al thought, ‘Wow, he looks pretty good.’

“Al, I will be the first one to say, the Air Force should have been open because they missed a gem,” she continued. “They missed a gem. But their loss is the Marine Corps’ gain.”

Following the flag presentation, Nelson gave Ernst a box of sand from the beach at Iwo Jima, where Nelson visited in 2008 to commemorate the World War II battle’s 63rd anniversary.

“I’m kind of overwhelmed today because I just never did know that anything like this would ever happen,” Nelson said to Burlington’s Marine Corps League and the family and friends gathered in his honor Friday. “But God has been so good to me for 92 years — I’ll be 92 next month — he’s been so good to me that I just have to believe in him.”

Cheryl Kozak, Nelson’s youngest child, said growing up her life was that of a typical “service brat,” moving around the country constantly because of Nelson’s military career.

“We grew up with being in the military,” Kozak said. “My first years of elementary school, every two years we were moving somewhere.”

When she was in sixth grade, the family settled in New London.

“He was a staff sergeant. Growing up with a staff sergeant, it’s reveille every morning,” Kozak said of the military’s wake-up call.

Now, Kozak and her father live together in Burlington.

“This is my final home,” Nelson said. “I won’t move, remarry, none of that again.”

Of Nelson, Ernst said he was “a truly great American.”

“Al is very special to the community,” the senator told reporters after the ceremony. “He’s special to this group of Marines. Today, the room was filled with colleagues and brothers and sisters from the Marine Corps, and you can tell they appreciate his service so much. He’s so humble, giving thanks to God for all that he’s been given in his lifetime.”