Since my students at Edison State Community College and I have been interviewing military veterans, we have hit the 100 mark. Of that 100, only one interview was disappointing.
He was a World War II veteran and wanted to blame his military service for all the failures in his life. He was disappointed with his work after the military, his marriage, and his daughters. It was difficult to listen to him as he never assumed responsibility for any of the missteps in his life which began when he flunked out of engineering school at a prestigious university.
Now that I’ve cleared that up, I want to assure you that these veterans have taught me so much more than I ever learned in my American history and government classes in high school and college, and I had excellent teachers.
These veterans have brought that human dimension into my life as they have shared their love of country, their love of those with whom they served, and their belief that their service was meaningful, important, even though often it was filled with hardships and grief. I have listened as they have discovered the words to share their examples of the ways in which their service impacted them.
And what has happened in the process of the sharing? I have come to love them in very special ways, to respect them, to admire their courage and their caring. Let me tell you about just a few of them.
At the top of my list is always Robert Tweed. He’s 97 now and can no longer do the many things he’s done for me and my students: speaking to my American literature classes, participating in parades, answering my endless inquiries about World War II. Tweed was at the Battle of the Bulge and at Dachau the day after Americans freed this death camp. I can never forget his accounts of what he saw at Dachau as he bore witness to that which is most evil in human behavior.
Then there is Harry Christy, also at the Battle of the Bulge, with a more positive story than Tweed’s. Most of Tweed’s men were killed or captured. They were cold and starving with limited ammunition to respond to a German assault. A
tremendous sadness envelopes Tweed as he recalls that time. Christy’s unit suffered very few fatalities. Time flies and Christy has already had another birthday since I attended his party on his 95th. The community was out in full force on his 95th to salute the positive differences he has made in the lives of so many.
When I think of World War II, I always think of POWs. Lester Edsall (1920-2017) represents them for me. I have read his autobiography and have interviewed him several times. At the time of his passing, he still carried the responsibilities he was forced to assume in surrendering his men to the Germans or having them mowed down in a “circle of light.” He did, of course, what you or I would do: he saved the lives of his men by surrendering in hopes of their being able to escape or the war coming to an end. The hardships he suffered as a POW were horrendous. After escaping, Edsall crossed the Elbe River to the Allied side, and he cried. And I cry as I think of that day.
Korean War veteran Fredrick Shively (1929-2017) came forward to help me at the college educate students about war long before we started the major projects. Additionally, he and Ken Williamson (1930-2015) taught 50,000 area students about war in a program entitled “Korea-The Forgotten War-Our Legacy to You.” When Williamson died, Shively could not carry on. Williamson could bring a room to tears as he spoke in his powerful voice of the pain of telling 30 plus parents that their sons had been killed in combat.
My Kentucky friend Weldon Oakley has shared with me his knowledge of being in the Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War where 120,000 invading Chinese , some of whom were literally feet from him, as he carried out his daunting tasks in a brutal 17-day battle in November and December of 1950. And Oakley has talked with my college students and with students at the Upper Valley Career Center. He is committed more than anyone I’ve ever known to making certain that in death, veterans are provided the proper ceremonies and burial.
Another person who has touched my heart deeply is Don Earnest. Born in poverty in West Virginia, he joined the military so that the other children in his large family would have more food. He has carried the memories of the children in the Korean War who were homeless, hungry and mutilated all these decades
since he left Korea. Their parents were absent- either through death or the dislocation that often occurs in wars. With scant clothing-at times a single piece- and missing arms and demonstrating other wounds of war, these children are what I see when I recall the Korean War.
These men are just a few of the dozens whose stories have become an important part of me. Because of them, I am free; because of them, I can share their stories; because of them, I can have hope. I thank them for their precious gifts of compassion, of understanding, of service.
Dr. Blevins has taught undergraduate and graduate students as well as prison inmates, and now teaches communication and American literature classes at Edison State Community College. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Reach