I Was There: They Don’t Tell Stories

Kourtney and Jon Sladek

My guest columnist is Jon Sladek. He served in the Air Force from 1998-2004 and deployed to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. Jon earned a Journalism degree from Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama and was a staff writer for 3 years at the Maxwell-Gunter Dispatch, an Air Force newspaper in Alabama. His work has appeared in The American Legion Magazine, Lake Erie LifeStyle Magazine, I Love Cats Magazine and the U.S. Air Force Leader Magazine.

They Don’t Tell Their Stories

By Jon Sladek

It could be a neighbor, a coworker or someone who sits next to you in church. Veterans returning from service often assimilate back into society to lead lives of relative anonymity. It is impossible to know how many people you routinely come into contact with were involved in combat operations in Iraq.

The overwhelming majority of veterans did not serve for the privilege of boasting. They do not view themselves as heroes, but rather just another Soldier, Marine, Seaman or Airman doing the job they signed up for.
When I discovered my good friend Jim was involved in one of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq War, I couldn’t help but want to know his story. Not in a morbid way, but because I am a journalist and I so appreciate the sacrifice of the American serviceman and staunchly believe their stories are worthy of telling.

While I did serve six years on active-duty in the Air Force, deploying twice; I was never directly involved in combat. To hear the stories of courage and heroism described by Jim when he recounted his battle experience to me, I knew it was time to put my journalism background to use.
For the last two years, I have been compiling and writing the battlefield stories of local veterans for a book I hope to get published. Searching for veterans willing to tell their story to a complete stranger is not the easiest of tasks, but I consider myself blessed for the people I interviewed and connections I’ve made.

Chagrin Falls Fire Prevention Officer Jim Alunni still doesn’t know how he survived a massive truck bomb that left his body permanently scarred and damaged his hearing. Cleveland Clinic doctor Pat Ginley dealt with the stress of working in a battlefield emergency room by building and repairing bicycles for troops on base during his off time. Egyptian-born Albert Fanous used his language skills to boost morale by procuring various perks for his Army brothers, while witnessing some of the most memorable events of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Each interview was a life-changing experience. I gained an understanding of what things were really like on the ground in Iraq, beyond the headlines and 24-hour news cycles. I tried to ask the right questions, while remaining mindful of the sensitive nature of the subject. At some point during several of the interviews, I felt the veteran began to appreciate the opportunity to unload some of the things that too many in our society don’t understand.

It is always a joyous occasion when a veteran returns from Iraq to a hero’s welcome at the airport. Sadly, for so many of them, the war does not end the day they set foot in the United States. Reading of the experiences of servicemen in Iraq can forge some understanding of the emotional trauma endured in battle. It also highlights the unmatched camaraderie between military members who form bonds that often last a lifetime.
This project began because I want to write books for a living and the military is obviously one of my top interests. Now I don’t care if this is the only book I ever get published. By recording the stories entrusted to me by our nation’s heroes, I have assumed a great responsibility.
Frank Herda, one of only two living Medal of Honor recipients in Ohio, told me when he graciously agreed to write the forward to my book that his one regret from his service in Vietnam was his failure to keep a daily journal.

With Love You More Than You Know, Janie Reinart and Mary Anne Mayer provided an awesome and unique opportunity to view the war through the eyes of the local mothers who send their beloved sons and daughters to fight for the country. With I Was There, I hope to accomplish the same for local troops.

Jon is accepting stories from vets in the Iraq War. Send your story to jon.sladek@gmail.com

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Navajo Code Talker Dies at Age 86

In beauty I walk

With beauty above me I walk

With beauty before me I walk

With beauty behind me I walk

Everything around me, in beauty I walk

In beauty I walk

It has become beauty again

It has become beauty again

It has become beauty again

—Navajo Prayer

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a poetry workshop on sacred Navajo ground in Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. We learned about the Dinẻ (the name Navajos call themselves) way of life.  John Fox was our poetry teacher and Lupita McClanahan was our Navajo guide.  We climbed and walked and wrote in the canyon. We primitive tent camped and ate our meals—including golden fry bread– cooked on a fire outdoors. There was no electricity. We slept under the stars. Their silent brilliance took my breath away. We listened as Lupita told us stories about “the People”.   I learned about the beauty ways of these Native Americans and came to appreciate their culture.

The Navajo language refers to everyday things by gender. A gentle spring rain is female, while a loud thunder storm is designated as male.  In 1942, this beautiful language was used to help save thousands of lives by becoming the only unbroken military code in US history. During WWII, the Japanese intelligence experts broke every US military code and were sabotaging communications by inserting fake messages and commands to ambush Allied troops. More and more complex US codes were developed and took hours of decryption for very simple messages. A faster, simpler way of communicating secret messages was needed.The answer was using the Navajo language. The orignal group of code talkers numbered 29 and memorized 200 different terms. Nothing was written down. By the end of the war, the secret terms grew to 600.

From the Official Code Talker website:

“In a simple, memorable way, the military terms tended to resemble the things with which they were associated. For example, the Navajo word for tortoise, “chay-da-gahi,” meant tank, and a dive-bomber, “gini,” was a “chicken hawk,” (a bird which dives on its prey). Sometimes the translation was more literal, as in “besh-lo” (iron fish) which meant submarine; other times it was metaphorical, as in “ne-he-mah” (our mother), which meant America.”

We as a nation have lost another WWII hero, Joe Antonio Silversmith, a Navajo code talker.  The official website of the Navajo Code Talkers says: “It is a great American story that is still largely unknown—the story of a group of young Navajo men who answered the call of duty, who performed a service no one else could, and in the process became great warriors and patriots. Their unbreakable code saved thousands of lives and helped end WWII.”

Thank you Joe Antonio Silversmith for your service.

110 Years Old:The Last Surviving U.S. Veteran of World War I Dies

My grandmother, Jenny Troha told me a story about how she was in love with a soldier and that they were going to get married when he got back from the war (WWI) . He never returned. Jenny ended up marrying my grandfather, Matt instead of her soldier.  I was never able to ask Jenny for more information about her soldier as she died unexpectedly a short time later.That was thirty two years ago. This storyabout the last surviving soldier of WWI made me think of Jenny and all those soldiers that have gone before us and given their lives for freedom’s sake.

The last US surviving veteran of WWI, Frank Buckles died on Sunday. Frank convinced an Army recurituer that he was 18 years of age in 1917, when in reality he was only 16 1/2 years old.  The article states:

When asked in February 2008 how it felt to be the last of his kind, he said simply, “I realized that somebody had to be, and it was me.” And he told The Associated Press he would have done it all over again, “without a doubt.”