When I was a reporter, I was always on the lookout for a good story. It’s been seven or eight years ago, that I had what I consider the chance of a lifetime. I just didn’t recognize it for what it was right away.
I was asked to write a series of stories featuring U.S. veterans. It was for a Veterans Day special section in a local newspaper. I interviewed veterans from World War II, the Korean War and Viet Nam. Each solider had a very different story to tell. Their perspectives were fueled by generational differences, personalities, and certainly their post-combat lives.
The gentleman who served in World War II was actually decorated with several medals for his bravery and valor. I believe I remember seeing a Purple Heart mounted on the wall behind his desk in his office. He showed me old photos of his much younger self in uniform and recalled the hero’s welcome he received upon his return to his hometown, where he had a successful career in real estate and raised his family. The interview was pleasant, and I was struck by how humble he really was about his service. After the interview, when I saw the man here and there in our small town, I couldn’t forget his stoicism and clear sense of duty.
The veteran from the Korean War had quite a different tale to tell. He openly admitted to me that he was in trouble with the law quite often as a youth. After a series crimes and misdemeanors, he was given a choice: go to jail or sign up for the Navy. He chose the latter, and described his time overseas as an eye-opener that he would never have had without military service. He looked right at me and said that if he’d not gone into the Navy, he would surely have spent most of his life in prison. Military life provided him a structure, discipline and a code of honor that he desperately needed.
My experience with the Viet Nam veteran changed my life. I’ve never been so humbled. I suspect that he’s retired now from a lifetime as a farmer. He agreed to meet me in the back of a bar at the local V.F.W. I had a beer with him and we started making small talk. I imagined that the interview would take a half hour or so. Four hours later, I knew more about this brave man than his own family did. In fact, I was the first person to hear his war story. He’d never spoken to his wife, children or friends about it.
He was just a farm boy. He graduated from high school one week, and was enlisted the next. He trained to fly helicopters, and was sent to Viet Nam within six months. His job was to take young men just like himself and dump them in the combat zone. He was also involved in getting some of the injured back to safety. Most of the time, there was no use trying to get his dead comrades brought out. He cried as he told me that he and his fellow helicopter pilots soon referred to their jobs as “dropping off fresh meat.” It was a defense mechanism to mask their horror. The things he told me he saw were unbelievable, but I knew he was telling the truth. When he made it home, there was no celebration, and he went right back to farming. He struggled quietly with alcohol and nightmares.
This grown man was wracked with sobs in the back of that smoky bar, and I wasn’t sure what to do. All I could do was put my hand on his arm and promise him that I would do my best to tell his story. A good journalist is trained never to let the subject read a story before print, but I broke the rules on this one. I delivered it to him one afternoon, and tucked it underneath his door. The next day, I found the envelope tucked under my door. The note simply said, “thanks.”
After that, it seemed like everywhere I turned, there he was. In the grocery store, on the sidewalk watching a parade, at the post office. Each time we noticed one another, I’d smile and give a little wave. He’d wave back and nod my way. Nothing more. I don’t know if he was embarrassed about the exchange we had in the bar that afternoon. Perhaps we’d poked open a wound and he wanted to tend to it alone again. I’ll never know. But I do know how fortunate I was to have heard his story.
And I know that I’ll never look at a soldier or a veteran without thinking about that afternoon in the bar, with a beer, my pen and paper and one very brave man.