Thinking about Veterans’ Day and how I feel about it caused me to remember some Vets in particular, each of whom is a hero to me.
First up is my friend Ron Stites, who as a member of the 101st Airborne, served in Vietnam. He was exposed to Agent Orange, and later in life had a lung transplant and severe heart damage. Ron passed away silently within the past two years. One of the finest trial lawyers I know, Ron was an early champion of women’s equality before it was openly discussed much less promoted. He is why I became active in our state trial lawyers association. There, I met the finest champions of justice, who like Ron, sought to protect the rights of citizens to a fair day in court. A great outdoors man, we fished and sometimes, hunted together. The demons of war caused him to suffer from PTSD, yet he kept that part of his life quiet to many.
My brother in law, Harold Straka, served as a Military Police officer in Vietnam. His luck held out for he had a temporary-duty assignment to transport prisoners to Ft. Leavenworth about the time that his first child was born. His good fortune stayed with him throughout his service as he avoided being wounded despite the risks of war. In his civilian life, he became a senior partner with what is now PriceWaterhouseCoopers, retired to Florida, and became as diametrically opposite me as can be imagined when it comes to politics. We still fish and play golf, while routinely jabbing each other with the needle about the politics du jour. He is my brother from another mother.
Jim Ellenberger, a graduate of OCS, served as an officer in Vietnam. He rarely ever spoke about his experiences to me. A private man, he stands as a giant in my eyes. Jim’s career was devoted to public service. As a safety and health expert with the national AFL-CIO, he worked with labor and management organizations to reduce the risks of injury and the losses sustained by families when a member was injured at work. He held public office in Virginia, and was a founding member of a non-partisan national organization, to which national elected officials look for advice, on matters of social insurance–Medicare, Social Security, Unemployment, and Workers’ Compensation. Stepping out of character, Jim co-authored a spy mystery with two of his closest friends, which I hope becomes a national best seller and Matt Damon stars in the movie some day.
The fourth is a former client, whose name I won’t share. He was a decorated veteran of Vietnam, wounded in separate firefights three times. I tried a case for him some years ago, where his PTSD from Vietnam was significantly aggravated by his job as a firefighter. After witnessing a particularly gruesome death, the stress caused him to tell his Chief he couldn’t work anymore. A firefighter for 30 years, he was rejected for a duty related retirement, rejected for worker’s compensation coverage, and left without hope. He was one of the soldiers who was spat upon when coming home through San Francisco. He felt like his community did the same when it wouldn’t support his cry for help. While he was ultimately successful through the courts, it cost him marriages, damaged his relationships, and but for a terrific counselor at the VA, he would not be alive today.
My Uncle, Charles Lynn, served in the Air Force and was a Korean War Veteran. Charlie raised three boys whom he taught to be men of character. He never missed a chance to go fishing with family, including his brothers-in-law, my Dad and Porter. His life after service was one of peaceful grace. He always had a smile, a laugh, and made me feel important whenever I saw him. Like many veterans, he chose not to speak about his personal experiences from war. He was a solid example of a life well lived, respectful of his God, a loving husband and father who led by example.
Another friend that I thought about on this day, set aside to honor those who served, is John Schiefelbein. John’s Vietnam era service still has missions which have not been declassified. A fixed wing pilot, he flew RP-2E Neptune aircraft of the 156th Army Security Agency Aviation Company. His civilian life has gravitated from being a pilot with Braniff Airlines to his current love as a wilderness outfitter for those who enjoy primitive camping and canoeing in the BWCA and Canada. John has over 30 years in that job, and countless Boy Scouts, families, Astronauts, and military brass have enjoyed his desire to make their trips memorable. But John’s service to those in need has seen him spend weeks in hurricane damages areas of our nation on numerous occasions. He doesn’t do that for acclaim, but his sense of duty to his fellow man exemplifies what is so worthy of emulation.
My friend, Sharon Martin, is a fire truck driver, and, a Colonel in the Army National Guard. She has been cleared by Congress to become a Brigadier General. Sharon’s been deployed in the Middle East war zones and was in command of the Missouri national guard MP’s when they were called to action in Ferguson, Missouri. Quiet, unassuming, and always serving the community, state and nation, Sharon’s devotion is remarkable.
Bill Clinton – not that one – “Top” to his friends, is a Marine Corp Master Sargent retiree, saw action in Vietnam, and served his country honorably for a career. I got to know him through his tireless efforts with the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation. Together with my other brother-in-law, Bill Straka, we joined with Top to raise scholarship monies for use by the children of Marines and Fleet Marine Force Navy Medics who are KIA. Top has spent another twenty-five years of service to Toys For Tots as well as just about any charity besides the MCSF, yet again demonstrating the desire to serve doesn’t end with separation from active duty.
My Dad, George A. Boyd, was a WWII veteran who entered France at Omaha Beach. I think about him every day, but thought about him differently today as he was an older soldier than the 17-18 year olds he served with then, for he was 31 when he enlisted. As an “old” man, he was looked up to by these boys, and Dad received a field promotion to Corporal as units were put together on that beach as they fought inland. One of the very few stories he ever told me about his service was how that promotion was for a day or two. When I looked at his DD-214, I asked him “Were you busted?”. His reply was simple: “The rigors of command were too much for me.” Dad returned home from the war with the residuals of his feet damaged by trenchfoot and severe cold. He took me to my first union meeting, as he was an officer in an IBEW local. I was about 7 or 8 years old. He instilled in me the values of brotherhood, and first taught me that an injury to one is an injury to all.
Each of these men and women are everyday heroes to me. They helped shape me and those around me in so many ways. I’m grateful for their service, for what they continued to do in their lives, and for the memories which they have left me.