There are many ways to honor Veterans on Veteran’s Day, but one of the easiest may be simply listening to their stories. One church in Buckingham County has taken that a step further, and self-published the stories of the veterans in its congregation. WMRA’s Emily Richardson-Lorente went to meet a few of the contributors.
Sixty-nine year old Welford Jones has a story to tell.
WELFORD JONES: Shipped me straight to Vietnam at 18. That was no joke.
Jones is head of the Trustee Board here at the Baptist Union Baptist Church in Dillwyn. But 50 years ago, he was just a scared teenager driving a tractor-trailer truck full of fuel … through the mountains of Vietnam … at night … with only parking lights to show the way.
JONES: And you had to haul at night not to get blown up. The worst part of that? Coming back down.
Jones remembers this one time … he was driving down the mountain a bit too fast …
JONES: The trailer starts sliding towards the left side of the tractor and I couldn’t stop it.
So he opens the door, throws his M-16 out, and leaps after it …
JONES: The trailer turned over. The only reason it didn’t blow was because I was hauling diesel. If I was hauling gas for the jets or the jeeps, I probably wouldn’t have made it.
Of course, he DID make it. With only a sprained ankle and a story to tell. It’s one of the stories he contributed to “God and Country: The Stories of Our Veterans.” It’s a 70- page, hardcover book put out by the Baptist Union Baptist Church, comprising stories from ten of its veterans.
JANICE JOHNSON: I’m always happy when Veterans get a voice.
That’s Janice Johnson, a member of the church and a veteran herself.
JOHNSON: I was enlisted a Private E2 in the basic medical corps and ended up retiring as a bird colonel. Who would have thunk it? And some of the places that I went you know I would just almost pinch myself what am I doing here? You know from rural Virginia to Japan, Germany, Korea, Albania, Nigeria you know places that army allowed me to go. It was incredible.
Colonel Johnson helped recruit other veterans in her church to participate in this writing project. It’s part of a program called “Home and Abroad,” the brainchild of retired Longwood University English Professor named Michael Lund.
MICHAEL LUND: This is very rewarding for a man who’s retired.
Dr. Lund started “Home & Abroad” as a free writing workshop for veterans, military members and their families. He’s also a veteran, and he recognizes the value of sharing these stories.
LUND: One percent of the population now in our country has military experience and the 99 percent don't know much about what it's like.
So in addition to helping veterans get their stories on paper, Dr. Lund also prints them — as books or booklets — and provides each writer with copies to distribute, for free.
LUND: So there’s something you hold in your hands that you can show people.
Recording these stories is growing increasingly urgent as veterans of Korea and Vietnam grow older. Church member Sam Matthews is 78 and now has a little trouble communicating since having a stroke.
SAM MATTHEWS: Then what I want to say gets twisted (laughing)…
But the words he wrote are perfectly clear. He served in a military police battalion, one of the many units deployed to Oxford, Mississippi in 1962.
ARCHIVAL AUDIO: … the town of Oxford is an armed camp following riots that accompanied the registration of the first Negro in the university’s 118 year history.
The student they were there to protect was an African-American student named James Meredith - a veteran himself. But shortly after Sam Matthew’s unit left for the university, all of the African-American soldiers, officers & enlisted, returned to base. An order had come down barring them from participating, for fear their presence would only incite more violence. Then, to add insult to injury, the entire unit was ordered not to speak of it. Sam Matthews remembers how humiliating that was.
MATTHEWS: We can’t even go and help defend this black man and we are blacks. It makes me feel like it was something with us wrong.
It’s obviously a painful memory for Matthews, but he’s still happy to see it in print.
MATTHEWS: It’s nice, it’s good.
He says it validated him.
MATTHEWS: And it was put down some place where somebody else can see.
Many of the stories in this God and Country book are compelling. But not all are serious.
THOMAS HUTCHERSON: I had fun. I enjoyed myself. That’s the kind of person I am. (laughing, snorting, slapping his knee)
Meet Thomas Hutcherson. He’s a deacon in the church now, but he looks back fondly on his three years as an Army Sargent. He says most people don’t know what veterans went through.
HUTCHERSON: And if we knew what they knew or experienced what they experienced, we would treat veterans completely different.
Welford Jones, the soldier who leapt from his fuel truck, agrees.
JONES: Oh, it’s very important to let them know what the veteran went through, what the veterans are going through now. A lot of veterans are still catching a hard time.
REPORTER: What would you say is the best thing that’s come out of this project, this book?
JONES: Probably what we doing right now, talking about it. Talking about it.