By K. G. Benell
I had the privilege of spending an afternoon at the VA Hospital Community Living Center in Lyons, NJ a while back, doing an Author Presentation. When I arrived, the woman who had invited me told me that she never knows what to expect. “Sometimes they don’t respond,” she said. I told her that I understood and would go ahead and see what happened.
The audience consisted of veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, as well as men who served during peacetime within those timeframes. Many of the men were in wheelchairs. They seemed to enjoy the presentation as much as I enjoyed the discussion and interaction I had with them. They all had stories to tell and I could see and hear the sincerity in their words. It was a very moving day...we laughed a little and we cried a little, but most of all we remembered...and hopefully, we will always remember…these and those like them.
As a writer, I strive to have my characters make the reader feel emotion. The words of these veterans were as powerful and full of feeling as anything I can write. There was the soldier who at the age of eighteen landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. There was the paratrooper who lived through the Battle of Bastogne when they were cut off and surrounded in bitter cold conditions. There was the other paratrooper who served in both Korea and Vietnam, and was now on oxygen and barely able to speak, who when he had something to share would whisper his comment to me and I would share it with the audience. There were those and so many more.
I ended the presentation by describing the ending scene of the movie, The Bridges At Toko-Ri. The movie takes place during the Korean War and in the scene a U.S. Navy Admiral, who has just lost a number of his men, sits on the bridge of an aircraft carrier watching his aviators takeoff to take on unknown dangers, not knowing if they will return safely. The Admiral looks at his Air Officer and asks the question, “Where do we get such men?” I repeated that question to the audience, and then asked each man where they were from, therefore answering the admiral’s question. We get men and women willing to serve from all over this great country, and continue to do so.
It was gratifying to see the young staff members who stayed to listen hanging on every word. Many of the employees only knew about these men as a bunch of guys in wheelchairs who needed to be cared for, but had no idea what they had experienced. One member of the staff told me that he rarely sees emotion from these men, but that they really came to life that day. He said that the stories were so riveting that he didn’t want the event to end and he couldn’t wait for my return visit. He also told me he would spend more time with these men now that he knew more about them and felt a stronger connection to them.
After the presentation was over, I was approached by a number of the attendees individually. There they were, a line of men in wheelchairs, waiting to speak to me. They related personal stories and thanked me for sharing mine with them. I assured each and every one of them that the honor was all mine and I thanked them for their service and their sacrifice, and for sharing their experiences with me. As a former Naval Officer, I salute them all...those who served in war and peacetime. They are all U.S. Veterans, who at some time in their lives, stood up and took the oath to defend this nation no matter what, come what may, and I am honored that I have been invited back for another visit.