Posts Tagged ‘veterans’

Extraordinary stories of ordinary people

Extraordinary stories of ordinary people


“That’s Mary Ford,” I said, pointing to the faded image of the Army nurse on the man’s tee shirt.

He nodded.

“She was my sister. She’s in here, too,” he said, holding up a booklet.

“I know. I’m the one who put her in there.”

We shook hands and both started crying.

In September of 2006, South Dakota dedicated its Vietnam War Memorial with a three-day celebration. Today, the state observes its first “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day”, an official state holiday to honor those who served in Vietnam.

I was on the planning committee for the 2006 event, the third war memorial dedication in our state. I’d worked on the previous two as well, for the World War II Memorial in 2001 (literally days after 9/11) and the Korean War Memorial in 2004. My duties were to design, write and oversee the production of all the printed materials like invitations, signs, apparel, name badges, banners, concert tickets and so on. And the commemorative program booklet which for the Vietnam War Memorial Dedication included the pictures and stories of more than a dozen South Dakota veterans.

Thousands of veterans, along with friends and family members, submitted photos and stories for the dedication website and a book “The Vietnam War: South Dakota Remembers” that was published in conjunction with the event. I read and reviewed all of them.

I knew some of those people. Dennis Foell, Nick Roseland, Dale Christopherson, the Harford brothers (Warren, Jerry and Doug), Dale Bertsch, Francis Whitebird. Others I didn’t, like Mary Ford. But their memories and images were no less compelling or personal to me.

Some Vietnam veterans wouldn’t attend that weekend and given the reception they got when they first came home after the war, that’s to be expected. Sometimes a “Thank you and welcome home” 30 years later is too little, too late.

There are moments from that fall weekend in 2006 that I will always remember. The biker with the Vietnam Veteran patch who saw the “committee” designation on my shirt and asked if he could hug me. I said yes. The quiet man who handed me his “Find a Buddy” card to hang on the board and whose “buddy” turned out to be the older brother of one of my friends. A few quick phone calls later, they were reunited for the first time since shipping out together. And meeting Mary Ford’s brother who had brought his family to the dedication in her honor because she couldn’t attend herself. The smiling, compassionate woman who’d entered the service on Halloween 1967 and served two tours in Vietnam as an Army nurse died in 1998.

It’s March 30, “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day” in South Dakota. Who are you thanking today?

I live my life with an angel on my shoulder, guided by the light of loved ones lost.

I live my life with an angel on my shoulder, guided by the light of loved ones lost.

He’s a World War II veteran, in his 70’s,
and like many of that era, unfailingly polite.
“Please” for more ice chips,
“Thank you” for the bedpan,
“My apologies” for hitting the call button by mistake.
The lone occupant of a room with two beds,
he takes the one by the window
so he can watch the traffic.
He barely dents the mattress, is thin but not bony,
skin wrinkled but not pale and delicate.
He’s golden brown, a boy of many summers,
the same shade as my grandfather who’s a farmer
and I wonder if this man’s the same.
His hair, what’s left of it, is coarse and white
and his blue eyes are pale yet alert.
But it’s his arms that I study as I check his water pitcher.
They rest atop the sterile white coverlet like
fading portraits on a clean canvas.
Forearms covered in pictures, tattoos whose clear outlines
are muddied, the colors bled from age and the elements.
There are dates and a woman’s name,
a pin-up girl like the nose art of a bomber,
a dragon’s head that now spews a dim spark of its former flame.
While the old man sleeps, I try to picture him
as a strong young man whose eyes are clear,
whose heart pumps steadily, whose bare arms are unadorned.
Yet to travel to those places and see those things
that prompt him to wear his history forever on his skin.

Every day from my office window I see three American flags. One flies over the American Legion Post #8 cabin that sits on the banks of the Missouri River (with the flood, unfortunately, it’s temporarily relocating to higher ground). One flies over the outfield at Hyde Stadium, the baseball field across the creek from my office building. And one flies over a hometown bank one block down from where I work.  All three are perfectly framed in my window, waving in unison.

I have a similar view at home, thanks to my neighbor.  A military veteran, every morning he raises the flag on the big flagpole next to his driveway, hoisting the colors into the sky above him where they’ll proudly fly until dusk.

These flags, and many others in similar locations, fly every day, regardless of the date or the weather. At full staff in times of pride and celebration, half staff in moments of remembrance and honor. Every day, without fail. Should we celebrate Independence Day every day? From what I can see, we already do. Happy 4th.