Group strives to elicit wartime GIs' little-known details

By Dennis Johnson

May 11, 2003

News & Links

America's Veterans

Daily Breeze

Maybe it's someone who served under Gen. George Patton. Perhaps someone who charged the shore of Tarawa or walked among the blackened stench of burning Kuwaiti oil fields or worked stateside loading transports.

In countless situations, they are the unknown faces standing along street corners, living on reservations, walking next to you at the supermarket, living next door. The homeless, the employed, the just getting by - most often the ignored.

A group called America's Veterans knows this vast population of former soldiers, the average group that exists in and around those honored for triumphant and valiant battles. They help make up the population of 26 million veterans living in the United States and are sometimes forgotten by their fellow citizens and their government.

America's Veterans also knows that it's time people hear the stories of these veterans. Stories just as important as tales of bravery and heroes, but not often told.

"They are in mainstream society, but nobody walks around with a `V' on their forehead," said Michael Burr, a Vietnam War veteran and board member for the Marina del Rey-based veterans' rights group. "I would like people to have a greater appreciation for the sacrifices that people have made.

"I think there are a lot of people who take it for granted that there are always others out there who are willing to do this."

Burr and the organization are helping to lay the foundation for what is a national push to recognize living veterans - a populace swelling with those fresh from the war on terrorism and battles in Iraq. America's Veterans is creating The Living Wall, a physical monument of large porcelain-coated steel panels recognizing veterans from World War I and on through photographs and written histories.

The Living Wall dovetails with the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project, the federal government's drive to mine the collective memories of those who fought in wars past and present. These accounts will become part of a permanent archive, a record of the realities of war, the stories that slip through the cracks.

As an official partner with the Library of Congress, America's Veterans is capturing these memories for the purpose of offering a glimpse into the wartime psyche. But they also hope to draw attention to the plight of veterans mistreated within a system originally designed to recognize their sacrifices.

With nightly news footage of soldiers returning from Iraq, Burr and his colleagues know now is the time for action rather than give way to a new generation of forgotten veterans.

"People, I don't know. They just don't seem to have an appreciation of it," Burr said. "They watch it and then tune it out."

The purpose of America's Veterans, founded in 2001 by Peggy Fontenot and James "Jack" Kincaid Johnson, is to bring into existence The Living Wall exhibit. Besides honoring the living, the group also wants to educate the public about veteran health care, housing and job training.

One of its main goals is to help veterans navigate the bureaucracy of government services, including the problems encountered at the Veterans Administration hospitals.

"Having them on The Living Wall . . . this is something different rather than for those who have died," Fontenot said. "Combat veterans and those who have come back traumatized and are getting in trouble with the law get all the press."

The Living Wall, like the Veterans History Project, aims to document the contributions of men and women, civilian volunteers, support staff, military workers and personnel from all branches of service.

Already, the group has amassed close to 500 interviews with veterans, many gleaned from chance meetings and purposeful looking on cross-country trips, zig-zagging through the state and driving down the street.

Fontenot, a fine arts photographer, said there are legions of veterans out there, some of whom she's interviewed on American Indian reservations while showing her art work.

Johnson said that since the group began its efforts, its members have searched for those to interview. Sometimes it's a look, other times it's a certain tattoo, but whatever the case these soldiers - those who have sworn their allegiance to this country - are everywhere.

"We just figured that if we wanted them we had to go out and find them. . . . There is no company you can call," said Johnson, a soft-spoken bear of a man who spent 27 months in Vietnam with the Marines. "There is no computer you can get on and get statistics on where to find them.

"You have to pound the pavement."

With the older generations, it is something of a race against time. Of the 5 million living World War II veterans, about 1,100 die each day. There are only 2,500 living World War I veterans.

For those who fought in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf it can be a matter of timeliness. Grief and pain are still fresh for many. Others simply may not want to talk.

Of those who remain silent, many eventually yield to the catharsis of sharing, Johnson said.

"By us listening to them and them telling us their stories, I think they go away feeling better," he said. "There are good stories and there are bad stories. We take them all."

But what good is recording these old stories, these war stories? Haven't men, young and old, for generations been recounting their tales of battle? Newspapers are filled each Memorial Day and Pearl Harbor Day with these accounts. Literature as far back as The Odyssey has told the tale of the warrior and his exploits.

There is value in these memories. Something to be gained by family members in the explanation of what happened to the dad who died in Vietnam. A look into what it was a brother went through at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea.

War stories offer insight to those who never pick up a gun in defense of a country.

"It's kind of like if you've never experienced it you don't know what it's like," said Burr, of America's Veterans. "It's difficult to get the nitty gritty of it.

"Particularly in this country. People have a peripheral knowledge of war. . . . The civilian population of this country has never suffered the rape and pillage of invading forces.

". . . I think there is a disconnect because there hasn't been a war here in more than 100 years."

Burr said because the country has been so victorious in battle, with the exception of Vietnam, the general public hasn't been faced with the reality of war save for the 9-11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.

By recognizing living veterans and getting their stories, Burr hopes that people get a better knowledge of who veterans are, and realize that they are everywhere.

They are homeless or have serious medical problems related to their service, much of which is recognized by the government, he said, citing the long battle over Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome as examples.

As a volunteer for the organization, Torrance resident Paul Penn said he's had a fairly illuminating experience, adding that he's heard stories from people he would have never met.

"I think all vets should be put in the limelight to a degree," said Penn, who was classified 4-F during Vietnam. "I think both the guys who were out there (fighting) and those who helped out with supplies should both be recognized."

Once the The Living Wall is built, Penn said he hopes it helps the public recognize the amount of energy that went into preserving this country. In the meantime, Johnson, Fontenot, Burr, Penn and others will continue to seek out those who have served and educate the public that, in many cases, the golden parachute promised to soldiers doesn't always offer a safe landing.

"There's 26 million (living) veterans. We're never going to run out of stories," Johnson said. "This thing is never going to die. It's never going to go away. There will always be veterans."

Find out more:

America's Veterans

On the Web:

By mail:
America's Veterans
2554 Lincoln Blvd., Suite 706
Marina del Rey, CA 90291

By telephone:

Library of Congress' American Folklife Center Veterans History Project

On the Web: By mail:
Veterans History Project
Library of Congress
American Folklife Center
101 Independence Ave. S.E.
Washington, DC, 20540-4615
By telephone: 1-888-371-5848

Publish Date: May 11, 2003