Veterans recount past lives in wars

‘Little things’ span differences in conflicts for Buddies.
Monday, May 28, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:02 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Vietnam veteran Delbert Merts says it’s a love for pie and coffee that brings the War Buddies together twice a month.

But as the group’s members continue to meet at Presbyterian Manor in Fulton, they find common ground despite the generation gap and the differences in the conflicts in which they served.

The group’s members have served in every major U.S. conflict of the last 75 years: World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.

“It’s the little things that bring us together,” said Jeff Young, Presbyterian Manor’s activities director. “Like a small town in common or having been stationed on the same island during the war.”

Young formed the group in January after Missouri National Guard recruiter Sgt. Dave Strong, an Iraq war veteran, gave a presentation at the assisted living facility on the National Guard’s activities in the state. Anywhere from five to 15 people — mostly men — show up for the meetings. Strong now helps facilitate discussions.

Young said word-of-mouth generated interest in the group from people outside Presbyterian Manor as they came to visit family members living there.

As the group has become comfortable in conversation, some constants of war have emerged: the heat, the cold, the ready-to-eat meals and the importance of friendship.

“Chester has specific battles that he was in,” Young said, gesturing toward one of the men seated in a wheelchair in the circle. “Christy has specific battles that he was in. But that’s not what’s important to him. It was his buddy — what was his buddy’s name? What was his buddy doing? How did they survive together, and what did they do when they got home?”

Young said rather than focusing on specific battles or combat on the front lines, the War Buddies discuss the real, human stories that are the fiber of war.

Telling stories is the War Buddies’ specialty. The anecdotes flew at the group’s most recent meeting Thursday morning.

Staff Sgt. Aron Lee talked about finding a flower in the desert in Iraq, a hint of color in a barren landscape.

Chester Marler, who was a

cook during World War II, relat-

ed how he learned to make mayon-

naise from a recipe in an Army cookbook, a magic formula for flavor in a bland diet of powdered eggs and potato flakes.

The group usually tries to keep things light, but it isn’t always easy.

Jim Taylor, 89, a Marine who served in World War II, said he doesn’t like to talk about the suffering of war. “I wouldn’t even consider telling some of the sto­ries in some of those men’s eyes.

“It’s terrible,” he said. “That’s the reason I think (the group is) headed the right way. It’s mostly backed up by people with a little humor. Of course nothing ever hap­pened to me that’s humorous.”

Strong said that meeting veterans of earlier wars has driven home the adage that history repeats itself. With his daughter’s recent return from Iraq, he has some heavy questions on his mind.

“What can we do in our society, in our politic, to fix it?” he said. “Because, unfortunately, so many times we don’t fix it.”

“For the last 50 years, we keep getting sucked into a conflict somewhere,” Strong said.

The War Buddies often videotape their meetings as a way of documenting an oral history that members say has more nuance than most historical accounts.

“The history that we tell each other and we share may not be in anybody’s history book,” Young said.

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