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Listening To Service Members, Veterans


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. For the fifth year now, the oral history project StoryCorps has put special attention on the day after Thanksgiving, the day often called Black Friday, StoryCorps transforms into the National Day of Listening.

As you may know, there's also a focus each year. This year, StoryCorps launches a military voices initiative and encourages everyone to honor members of the military by contacting one - to listen. If you have a veteran or active-duty service member in your life, what do you want to ask? If you've served, what's the story you'd like to tell? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Scottish comedian Billy Connelly. But first we'll talk about StoryCorps and the National Day of Listening, and let's begin with a caller. Catherine(ph) joins us on the line from Denver.


CONAN: Hi, Catherine, you're on the air.

CATHERINE: Thank you. When I heard the intro to show, it's ironic, I was just thinking about my dad because I've become the family meal provider for holidays, and he's not with us and hasn't been since '96. I was with him as he was dying, and I'd always known that he joined the Navy right after Pearl Harbor and then became a corpsman with the Marines in the Pacific.

And he never really talked about it very much, as a lot of vets from that era didn't. But a Pilipino nurse came into his room in the hospital and was administering a treatment to him, and he asked her where she had trained. And when she told him University of Santo Tomas, he said oh, I was on a liberation team for a concentration camp there.

And then the conversation just drifted off to something else between the two of them, but it just stayed with me. And I wanted to know more. And he passed very shortly thereafter.

CONAN: So you never got the chance.

CATHERINE: I never got the chance. You know, I knew he'd been a corpsmen. We used to dissect frogs with his field kit when we were kids, and he went on to use the G.I. Bill to become a dentist. He'd grown up as a coalminer's son. He was, as you can tell, someone well worth missing today.

CONAN: Thanksgiving's got to be a painful day and a special one, too.

CATHERINE: Oh it is, and I'm just thankful I had a father worth missing.

Thanks very much, Catherine, we appreciate you taking the time to call us.

Well, thank you for taking my call. I appreciate it. I hope everyone has a very happy Thanksgiving.

CONAN: And even after all this time, Catherine, we're sorry for your loss.

CATHERINE: Oh thank you, I thank you very much. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. David Isay, who's the founder of StoryCorps and the National Day of Listening, joins us now from the Radio Foundation Studios in New York. He's also the author of "Listening is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life and the StoryCorps Project." David, always nice to share a bit of Thanksgiving with you.

DAVID ISAY: Hi Neal, good to talk to you.

CONAN: And that call from Catherine, I think it illustrates a lot of what the StoryCorps Project is about and what this particular project is about.

ISAY: Absolutely. I mean, I was thinking of a couple things when Catherine called. And, you know, one is, Catherine, I hope that - what we ask people to do on the day after Thanksgiving on this National Day of Listening is kind of StoryCorps do-it-yourself, where we ask you to take an hour out and use - you know, actually since we started talking about this, together, Neal, five years ago, technology has changed so much.

You know, now, you know, most people have a cell phone where they can make a pretty decent recording and take an hour and record a StoryCorps interview, and Catherine, you might want to do one remembering your dad. A couple things came to mind. One was that Frank Curry(ph) interview that we heard in the billboard at the top of the show.

He was - he did his interview a little bit over a year ago and talked about Pearl Harbor, and as you heard at the end of that interview. And he actually died last year on Pearl Harbor Day. And his grandson told us that he had waited to die on his day. And his grandson had only interviewed him, you know, months before that.

So the importance of just taking the time and doing these interviews is - you just - what we want to do with the National Day of Listening is just encourage people to take the time and do these interviews. It also made me think of a couple who came to the booth in the first weeks after we opened StoryCorps, we opened in Grand Central Terminal nine years ago.

And it was an elderly couple, a husband and wife, and the wife asked him about World War II, and he started crying and telling his story. And at the end of the interview, the facilitators, who are the people who sit in the booth during these StoryCorps interviews, said so what was this experience like for you. And the wife said: I've been married to this man for 60 years, and this is the first time I've ever heard him cry.

So there's something about the formality of doing these interviews also that I think gives people the permission to talk about things they don't normally get to talk about.

CONAN: I think that's right. It was interesting, years ago I was going around with a producer named Tache Talinitas(ph), back in the day, we were doing a series of pieces about - I now forget which anniversary of World War II. We were speaking with a group of veterans, Navy veterans, and people who had been at Bataan and on the death ships that later went to - took the prisoners of war to Korea.

And they were sitting around a room in Virginia Beach telling their stories, and we were recording them - a little more primitive equipment than those cell phones you're talking about now. But the man's wife came into the room carrying a tray of coffee, and as soon as she came in the room, they stopped talking.

ISAY: Right.

CONAN: They would not tell the stories while she was there. They would tell them to us, as if it was going to be private on the radio, in a few weeks time. But so many people would not - veterans of that era, as Christine(ph) noticed, would not tell these stories to their family members.

ISAY: And I also think part of the dynamic that was going on in that room with you and Tache and those vets, is that they felt like they were leaving this record for history, and it didn't feel self-indulgent to them. And that's something, you know, we've seen with for instance like, first - 9/11 firefighters and police officers will come to a StoryCorps booth, and they haven't wanted to talk about this before. But something about leaving a record of what happened on that day for history gives them the permission to talk about what they saw and what they feel.

CONAN: And you talked a little bit about StoryCorps and its genesis all those years ago in Grand Central Station. You now send booths around the country, so to speak.

ISAY: That's right, so we've been - nine years later, we've recorded almost 50,000 interviews, and most everybody comes in pairs, so it's about 100,000 people. And we have booths that travel across the country. We've recorded in all 50 states, and we're working hard to turn StoryCorps into a sustaining national institution. We hope that it's going to be around for a long time and that it's kind of part of the fabric of this country, to listen, to have these conversations, to recognize, you know, I think the core of what StoryCorps is that every life has value, every life matters equally, and that's what we're doing.

CONAN: And recorded for history, how?

ISAY: Well, we - when - for - with StoryCorps what happens is when you make a recording, this 40-minute recording, you - one copy goes home with you, and another copy stays with us and goes to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, so that your great-great-great-great grandkids can hear your - whoever it is, your grandfather or your grandmother's voice and story and get to know them in that way.

And, you know, you and I have been in radio for a long time. It's - you know, the power of the human voice, it's almost like the soul is kind of contained in the voice. It's a very powerful record of a life. And many people think of that StoryCorps interview as if I had 40 minutes left to live, what would I say to this person who means so much to me.

So they're very intense interviews. You know, you hear the three-minute excerpt on MORNING EDITION every Friday morning, but StoryCorps is really this public service, and it's about giving all Americans - and we do outreach to, you know, hundreds of community organizations to make sure that we get the full swath of the American voice in this collection.

And yeah, I mean, I think a lot of people, especially people who feel like their voices aren't heard or appreciated, that idea that it's going into the Library of Congress and becoming part of American history, is extremely important to them.

CONAN: David Isay is our guest, but we want to hear from you this hour, and particularly about StoryCorps' focus this year on military voices. If there's someone in the military who's been important in your life, as a family member, a friend, a mentor, whatever, what would you like to ask them? If you are that military man or woman, what story would you like to tell? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's go to Bren(ph), and Bren's on the line with us from Philadelphia.

BREN: Hi, I actually am the son and nephew of conscientious objectors in World War II. And I always knew this, I was raised Quaker, and dad was a smoke jumper in Montana and also, well, when he was first drafted and sent in, he was in North Carolina in an old CCC camp on the back of Mount Mitchell.

And neither environment were particularly friendly to guys who were seen as draft dodgers or something, although as a smoke jumper, dad clearly, you know, was putting his life on the risk, jumping on fires. But only years later did I learn that my grandmother had locked him out of the house. She was so ashamed at having not one but two conscientious objectors, and she apparently took it out on my father because he was the younger one and the second one and more unexpected.

And I just - the family dynamics of that kind of religious witness in a almost crusade that was sponsored, endorsed by the whole country, I wish I knew more about my own family dynamics at that time.

CONAN: I can understand why it maybe didn't come up at the Thanksgiving table when everyone was gathered round. Did you ever have the chance, though, a moment to pull him aside and ask?

BREN: No, no, I mean, we had - Uncle Rick(ph) and my grandparents lived in New Jersey, and we lived in Eastern Pennsylvania, and Thanksgiving was the vacation meal that we usually had together, and then Christmas was mom's family. No, it never came up, because, I think, grandma was sort of still ashamed.

They were Swedish immigrants, and they wanted to be more American, you know, than the Americans. So while they had two sons, conscientious objector, they also had signs in the window, apparently 20 percent of their income went to war bonds - not 10 percent but 20 percent. So they were - you know, no, that - I never learned all this until long after both my grandparents and my uncle had died, and then dad shared some of this before he died.

CONAN: Again, as David suggested with our earlier caller, it might be an interesting opportunity to - you have other siblings?

BREN: A younger sister, who probably talked even less with dad about this than me.

CONAN: Even so, maybe you should go down to the booth and talk about him, or make that recording, as David suggests, on your cell phone. Thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

BREN: Thank you, bye-bye.

CONAN: We're getting a jumpstart today on the National Day of Listening with StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, the focus this year on members of the military. If you have a veteran or active-duty service member in your life, what do you want to ask? If you've served, what's the story you'd like to tell? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Every Thanksgiving for the past four years we've invited Dave Isay to join us. He's the founder of the oral history project StoryCorps. He also created the National Day of Listening, the Friday after Thanksgiving, a day when we're encouraged to take someone aside and listen.

This year the focus is on members of the military, stories like Sergeant Papsy Lemus. For 13 months she served in Iraq, her two daughters waiting at home in 2009. One of those daughters, nine-year-old Griselda, interviewed her for StoryCorps.


GRISELDA LEMUS: How did you feel when you left?

SERGEANT PAPSY LEMUS: Worried. I didn't know if I was ever going to see you guys again. And it was hard because when you guys got sick, I wasn't able to come home, tuck you in at night and sing you your lullabies or read you a bedtime story like we used to.

LEMUS: Did you see any kids there?

LEMUS: Yes, it was kind of overwhelming because all the little kids in the town ran to the street and start waving at us, and it reminded me of you guys. How did you feel when I was away?

LEMUS: I felt really sad, and dad, he had to try to be the mom and the dad mostly, but he couldn't all the time. So he always had to have me be the mom a lot.

LEMUS: Is there a time when you were afraid?

LEMUS: Yeah, I was afraid. I was afraid mostly on your birthdays because I thought that what if you died on your own birthday and I would never see you again.

And it was just hard.

CONAN: If you have a veteran or active-duty service member in your life, what do you want to ask? If you served, what's the story you want to tell? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And Dave Isay, we just heard a pretty good interview by someone a lot younger than you or me, but others might be intimidated by the idea of - 40 minutes, my goodness, I don't know what to ask.

ISAY: Yeah, you know, and it's interesting because in that interview, I think it also speaks to that idea of the microphone giving you the license to ask questions you don't normally get to ask. You know, these - the 40 minutes actually goes by incredibly quickly. We all - when someone actually comes to the StoryCorps booth, the facilitators there will always tell people - and people should prepare before they do these interviews.

You want to think about what questions you want to ask. At our website at the National Day of Listening website, nationaldayoflistening.org, we have lots of - kind of the most popular questions and other questions. And you want to prepare. But the facilitators always say just start with that question you've always wanted to ask because the 40 minutes actually does go by incredibly quickly.

You know, it is - I guess there's a little bit of a barrier to doing these interviews. It's - you know, you want to ask the person if they're willing, and you find a quiet room. And all you need is, you know, a cell phone, a computer. But I can guarantee at the end of the 40 minutes that both of you are going to find out something that you didn't know about this person, no matter how close you think you are to them, and that it's something that you'll never regret.

We have a partnership this year with a website called SoundCloud, which is kind of the YouTube of audio, and they've made it very easy for you to record one of these interviews and kind of hit a button and upload it to this virtual sort of StoryCorps archive of interviews.

And I do want to say that we would love for you to interview a military vet, active duty, or someone in a military family, but if that's not something you want to do, you know, take time tomorrow or any time during the holiday season to tell a loved one how much they mean to you by asking them who they are, how they want to be remembered, you know, what the most important lessons are they've learned in life.

CONAN: Let's go to another caller. This is Clark, and Clark's with us from Oklahoma City.

CLARK: Yeah, my grandfather served from Omaha Beach to the Battle of the Bulge, when he lost a foot, lost his toes, they froze off. And it was hard to get stories out of him over the years. He did not want to talk about it. He let us kids play with the medals, we lost them. But I remember he also had a bag of gold nuggets that he brought back from Europe.

And we would play with these and bury them in the yard, our buried treasure, and we lost all of them, and I, you know, a few years ago asked him why would you let us do that with your medals and these gold nuggets, were those real gold? And he goes: Well, I didn't care about the medals, and he goes, and those gold nuggets were teeth.

CONAN: Were teeth?

CLARK: They were teeth, they were gold teeth pried out of the enemy soldiers' mouths in the hedgerows. He took from his men. He was a sergeant of his platoon. They lost their lieutenant in Omaha Beach, and he gathered up all these teeth they were prying out and said we're not grave robbers.

And he had those and we - I mean, it's ghastly to think about it in a way, and just the pride this man had, this humble quietness. You know, he had two silver stars, three bronze stars, and he never spoke about it.

CONAN: And that story, was that the only story you got him to tell?

CLARK: No - I mean he talked about they were trapped in a champagne warehouse and for a long time, several days, and then he talked about how it was the best place you could imagine being trapped. Or after he got injured, he was recovering in the south of England in a field hospital, and he fell in love with his nurse, who was this, you know, baron's daughter. And they would take trips in the countryside in their Rolls Royce with a chauffeur.

And this is a country boy from Kentucky, and these are amazing things that he saw and experienced in this - he was in his late 70s before he ever really started sharing stories.

CONAN: And what did he do after the war?

CLARK: Coal mining.

CONAN: From the baron's daughter to the coal mine.

CLARK: Yeah, he came home to Kentucky and started mining coal, continued mining coal.

CONAN: Sounds like a remarkable life.

CLARK: He's the most amazing man I know.

CONAN: I'm glad you got to talk to him about those experiences before he passed away.

CLARK: He's actually still alive.

CONAN: Ah, well, maybe you want to record some of these.

CLARK: We actually, my brother and I have been planning this for years. So yeah, we're definitely going to be doing that.

CONAN: Don't wait.

ISAY: One piece of advice you don't want to wait. And are you going to see him tomorrow or today?

CLARK: No, he's in Kentucky. I'm in Oklahoma. My brother is probably with him right now.

ISAY: Yeah. So, you know, tell him to do that interview.

CLARK: Yeah, I think it's a good idea, because we don't want to lose that. And there's so many stories that he has it's just taken years to get him to talk about.

CONAN: Clark, good luck with that. Get right on it.

CLARK: Thanks.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Mike, and Mike's on the line with us from Walla Walla.

MIKE: Good morning. (Coughs) Excuse me. I'm a Vietnam vet and so grew up after the war and always heard the stories about daddy never talked about the war. And then I went to war, and now I know why daddy doesn't talk about the war. There are stories that I have that I don't want to remember myself, and some of those stories bring out survivor guilt because why am I here and the guy who sat next to me flying over to 'Nam isn't.

The other thing is that I don't necessarily want to subject my family to some of the horrors I've seen. And the third reason that we don't talk about it is if you haven't been there, you're not going to understand it. And that's why the veterans get together and talk among each other because we know that those folks understand.

And as the fellow said, getting into a formal setting may let some of those stories come out, but those are some of the reasons the guy stopped talking when his wife walked into the room. And so my caution for families is go ahead and ask, but don't push. If you push too hard, you may trigger all sorts of things.

PTSD can pop out. I had a friend who it showed up when he was in his 80s, and in my case it didn't show up until I was in my 50s. So feel free to ask, but if they say I'd really rather not talk about it, don't push them too hard because that can cause some bad things to happen for the veteran.

CONAN: David, any advice on that?

ISAY: I completely agree. You know, this has to be voluntary, and if someone's not comfortable talking about something, you have to respect that. If someone doesn't want to do the interview, you need to respect that. And I think it's a point very well taken.

One of the things with the way we do StoryCorps is that people come in the pairs that they want to come in. So it could be two people who served together coming to talk to each other. And, you know, what - this experience is supposed to be positive both for the people - the person being interviewed and the person doing the interview, and you absolutely don't want to do any harm.

So I do think you do want to tread, especially when you're talking about war, you want to tread very, very carefully. But again, there are many people who just want to be asked. And you want to give the opportunity for people to talk. You know, and I think it's important that, you know, that - you know, I think a little bit about, you know, Studs Terkel, who talked so much about the importance of bottom-up history, history through our voices and stories.

And, you know, we know that the stories of wars are written by, you know, journalists and generals. But to hear it through the voices of the people who served, I think, can be incredibly valuable for future generations, for all of us, to really understand what goes on.

MIKE: Yes. And I applaud the StoryCorps program and would fully support it. It was just kind of a cautionary thing to family members because I've seen cases where someone started pushing somebody too hard: Gee, I'd love to hear about that. Well, yeah, you'd love to hear about it, but I don't want to tell it.

ISAY: That's right.

MIKE: In that particular setting, anyway.

ISAY: That's right. Absolutely.

CONAN: I can understand that, Mike. Thanks very much for the advice.

MIKE: You bet. Thank you for the program.

CONAN: So long.

MIKE: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go to - this is Robert, and Robert is with us from Virginia Beach, speaking of Virginia Beach earlier.

ROBERT: Hi. I was with the Marines during the first six months of Iraqi Freedom, and I wrote about one short story a day during hostilities, not knowing if I'd come home or not. And (unintelligible) because I didn't think - I thought it would all end pretty quick and everybody would forget about it. But one of them was actually published in the 365 Project. I'm not sure if you're familiar with that.

CONAN: I'm not.

ROBERT: That came around right afterwards. But the one story of mine they published in it, they changed the name and they put like a little excerpt at the beginning that's not from me, which I thought that was interesting, but that happens when you submit things, I guess.

CONAN: Well, there are some editors who are more careful than others. But in any case, a short story a day is - that's a lot of work.

ROBERT: They came out pretty quickly, actually. One of them took more than a day, it was longer than the other ones. But it was cathartic for me in some ways. One of them had to do with helping myself deal with the guy that fragged us, his fellow soldiers, and one to help deal with a certain reporter who we felt betrayed us a little bit. We were kind of surprised at what he did on international TV during the war.

CONAN: Betraying your position.

ROBERT: That and just - my memory is not good. It's been a while. But it just didn't seem right what he did there.

CONAN: Have you kept up your writing since?

ROBERT: I'm a bit of a procrastinator, but I have several books working in my head and one that's going on and on.

CONAN: And do you talk with people about your experiences?

ROBERT: Oh, yes. And there's too many stories. Anybody who's been on the military - I spent half my life in the military, so anybody who's been in the military, they've always got stories, believe me, unless they were asleep the whole time, which is impossible.

CONAN: All right. Well, Robert, think about calling somebody tomorrow maybe and recording one of those stories.

ROBERT: All right.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call.

ROBERT: Thanks.

CONAN: And let's see if we can go next to - this is Bridgita(ph) - or Bridgette(ph) in Minneapolis, excuse me.


CONAN: Hi, Bridgette. Go ahead.

BRIDGETTE: I'm going to turn my radio off.

CONAN: Thanks.

BRIDGETTE: I have a story to tell about my dad. He was a lieutenant in World War II. And he never talked about the service. I can relate to what some of these gentlemen have said. And he was - he died. He was almost 99 when he died. He was completely sharp to the end. And my sister went to - dad was on - at Normandy Beach. He was on the ship where he delivered the foot soldiers (unintelligible) ship - an LST .

CONAN: Yeah.

BRIDGETTE: And so at any rate, my sister - we knew dad was weak and didn't know how long he'd last. And my sister, Mary, said, now, dad, I'm going to go to Normandy Beach - her husband's college reunion was going to be there - and she said, but I want you to promise you won't go anywhere until I get back. And he said, I promise. So anyhow, she called him from Normandy Beach. I was next to his bed - and he had never talked about the war, never, except to say it was the best job he ever had. And she called dad and she explained what she saw because he never got to go back and see all the markers and all that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

BRIDGETTE: And she explained all about the markers and the service. There were so many in this reunion that they did this service just for them. And my dad's eyes, he just became transfixed. There was this change in his demeanor and in his countenance. And he was always a very gentle man. And he just was in another world. And when she - when we hung up the phone, it was just clear that his life had been brought full circle. And he - she got home in a couple of days. Her plane landed at 3:30 and he passed at 4:30.

So he didn't go anywhere until she got back, but she didn't get back to see him. But another thing - when you're talking about the stories - he was so old, there were only three people to call. And he had always said, Bridgette, these are the people you need to call. And they were the wives of the guys who had been sailors under him on the ship. And I ended up calling up one. I live in Burnsville, Minnesota, and the brother of one of these guys is in Eagan, which is like right down the road for me. He came and spoke at my dad's wake, and he explained everything about my dad's time in the service.

And we'd never heard about this man, but he visited dad a couple of times a year. His brother who had been a sailor under dad had died an early death of, like, a heart attack or something. And this guy came and gave the most beautiful tribute. And we were - we've got - there's four kids in the family. We had never heard boo. And he was - it was just an incredible experience. It was a gift. It was just a gift.

CONAN: A gift. That's a good way to put it, Bridgette. Thank you...

BRIDGETTE: Absolutely, yes.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

BRIDGETTE: Yeah, thank you for the program.

CONAN: You're welcome.


CONAN: David Isay, I meant to ask, is there anybody you're going to be calling tomorrow?

ISAY: Well, I did my National Day of Listening interview a little bit early. I did it yesterday. And it was with - it's going to be on MORNING EDITION tomorrow morning. It's with Gordon Bolar, who's a friend of mine. He runs a station in Kalamazoo, Michigan. And we remembered his son Matthew, who died in Iraq in 2007, and talked about who he was and what he was like as a kid and how his dad hopes that he'll be remembered.

CONAN: I wanted to end with a couple of emails. This is from Reese(ph): I served aboard a submarine in the early 1970s in the Mediterranean. Our home base was La Magdalena. It was a God-forsaken rock on the northeast coast of Sardinia. For Thanksgiving 1975 the USO sent us a show. The star of the show was the man who as a boy played the next-door neighbor to Ozzie and Harriet on TV. The starlet was the fourth runner-up to Miss California. It was a far cry by Bob Hope in Vietnam. And I can't remember their names, but I will never forget the fact that they gave up their holiday to come and perform for us. People who have never served will never know the good the USO does.

And Dave, that's a reminder that not all these stories are dramatic stories about combat and other things. They're parts of life. This...

ISAY: Absolutely. And USO is a terrific organization. They actually have a great program today, where if you go to the USO website, you can write a note, a thanks to service members, and it'll be posted on a sign in Afghanistan at different bases, so people can read those thanks. So go to the USO website and send a thank you.

CONAN: This is from Anne in Detroit: I interviewed my 93-year-old dad for StoryCorps last summer. The interesting thing I noticed was the recording, is when I asked questions about his time in the war I could actually hear the voice of a naive 19-year-old solider every time I listened to the CD. I can't thank StoryCorps enough for such a wonderful opportunity.

Can't ask for more than that, Dave. Thanks very much for your time as always.

ISAY: Thanks, Neal. Happy holiday.

CONAN: You too. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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