Sharing veterans' stories was ultimate reward
Several years ago, I was employed as a special sections coordinator at a newspaper in northern Indiana.
I'd always know what Veterans Day was; I'd always known when it was and what we were celebrating.
Or so I thought.
After discussing the idea with my editor, I was given approval to put together an entire special section dedicated to local veterans of World War II. The paper had never done anything like it, and I was excited about the project.
I assigned some stories to the other reporters in the newsroom, but I did the majority of them myself.
I called the local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, and I managed to get a small list of WWII vets who were willing to talk to me and let me do profile features on them.
The first gentleman I interviewed worked as a bartender at the Legion, and he asked me to meet him there.
When I got there, he was sitting on a barstool waiting for me. He had a stack of old photo albums piled on the bar.
He warned me early on that he didn't know how much help he was going to be to me. He said he knew the stories of World War II were important to tell, but that he, like many of his comrades, found the war experience very difficult to talk about.
I asked him to just start going through the albums and to tell me about the people and places in them.
He did OK for a while -- until he came to a photo of a much younger version of himself with another young man who looked to have been in his early 20s when the picture was taken.
It turned out that the young man in the photo with him had been killed in action -- and that the man I was interviewing had witnessed it.
"What can you say about watching your buddy stick his head out of a foxhole and get it blown off?" he said.
Then he started to cry -- gut-wrenching sobs that came straight up from his toes.
It struck me then that he, and all the other men who had fought in World War II, had gone through things no one who hadn't been through it themselves would ever understand.
They left boys, and they came home men.
One of my next interviews was with a woman named Jane, who had enlisted and worked office jobs during the war.
We had to set up the interview so it didn't interrupt her "story" -- she watched "The Young & The Restless" every day from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
She met me at the door of her home and offered me a cocktail, which I politely declined.
Jane said she'd like to have told me it was patriotism that made her enlist, but the fact was she was 18 years old at the time and her reasons were a bit selfish.
"There was nothing going on at home," she said. "There was no gas to go anywhere and no boys to take you there anyway. I had to go where the boys were."
As I worked on the stories, I met men who had gotten married days before they shipped out and had children born while they were overseas. I met men who could show me physical scars they sustained in battle and whose emotional scars began to show as they talked to me.
I saw pictures of fresh-faced boys who were now the 70-something men sitting there talking to me.
Being able to write those stories was an incredible honor. Going into it, I thought I knew exactly what I was going to hear.
These men and women opened my eyes to what it really meant to be a veteran.
From the day I did my first interview for that special section, my attitude changed. To this day, I never pass up a veteran outside a store who is taking donations and giving out paper poppies.
I have instilled in my children the importance of acknowledging and thanking veterans. When my 8-year-old son sees a man or woman in uniform, he knows he is to shake his or her hand and say thank you.
I have made absolutely sure that my children know who is responsible for their freedoms.
In so many ways, this career of mine is an embarrassment of riches. I meet people I would never cross paths with at all if telling stories weren't my job.
It's been 10 years since I did that World War II section. In the end, I won a first place Hoosier State Press award for it.
But that was hardly the real reward.