From World War II to Iraq, five veterans spanning three generations share their stories
It’s early morning, and a Vietnam War veteran we’ll call Jeff puffs a cigar outside a Midtown coffeehouse. Ear-warmer flaps poke out his veteran’s cap and smoke trickles into the chilly morning air.
Jeff’s at this cafe nearly every day, chatting up the same locals who drink the same pick-me-ups and feed the same pastry scraps to the same dogs. It’s a welcoming routine, an everyday American morning life, but one we often find ourselves taking for granted, even complaining about. Bills. Work. Rush, rush, rush.
But when you see Jeff kicked back in that folding chair left of the cafe entrance—calm, grinning—his air of gratitude is reassuring. And these days and in this economy, it’s a rare sentiment to appreciate what the moment offers. Jeff, who flew planes in Vietnam, no doubt understands: 58,209 American soldiers died in his war.
In 10 years, when the United States recognizes the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, this country will remember the 600,000 soldiers who’ve already perished in battle. Hopefully, America won’t have to commemorate much more than that number.
They say these veterans made the “ultimate sacrifice,” but can society fully understand that concept? We see pictures of coffins draped in the American flag, but do we understand what’s inside?
Jeff says the real war heroes are veterans of World War II, and he’s right, though there’s bravery in each man and woman who enlists. Put on a uniform, maybe not even knowing why, and commit to something bigger than one’s self. And transform everlasting.
This Friday, March 20, is the sixth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Those who’ve done tours there will soon will be coming home or be deployed elsewhere. To commemorate this date, here are five local accounts from numerous wars. Their stories echo those of the millions who have served. And, of course, their stories become ours. And that is sacred. And we are grateful.
‘A sacrament of Western culture’
Robert M. Stanley spent his 19th birthday in a water-filled foxhole.
It was 1945, and Stanley had been drafted just a few months after turning 18. Rather than return to Pasadena City College in Southern California, he headed for 13 weeks of basic training, then to a troop ship full of replacements for the casualty-depleted forces fighting on Okinawa, the first of the Japanese home islands.
They didn’t know it would be the last major battle of World War II.
“We thought it was the first battle,” recalls Stanley, 82, from the south Sacramento home where he’s recuperating from open-heart surgery. Okinawa was bad enough, he says, but the knowledge they’d have to fight up the Ryukyu chain of islands to Honshu “hung like a cloud over everybody.”
Stanley joined the troops while they were resting between fights. “The 7th Division had been chewed up,” he says, noting that the mortar squad he joined had suffered 50 percent casualties. Between the rapid pace of the battle and the way that Japanese forces had dug themselves into caves and holes, there was no front line. As Stanley describes it, platoons rested in circles because enemy stragglers could come up from any side.
That’s how Stanley managed to blow up all his grenades at once.
He was assigned, alone, to one of four guard holes on the perimeter of the circle of sleeping GIs, when a whole platoon of Japanese soldiers caught him out there by himself. After emptying his carbine, he stood up and began lobbing grenades, without thought of taking cover.
It was, he acknowledges, “not very smart.”
It also didn’t please Stanley’s comrades, since fragments from the grenades blew holes in the ponchos covering their foxholes while sleeping.
“That’s just not good work for a 19-year-old to be doing,” he says.
As the division moved up the island and encountered heavier resistance, including escarpments that made the mortars less effective, Stanley was assigned to be stretcher-bearer.
“The purpose of war is to kill people, and we made good targets,” Stanley says. He describes a battle where, when they arrived to reinforce a spot where the enemy attack had broken through, the graves detail had them stacking dead comrades in rows of two next to each other, then two more crosswise, and so on.
An atheist at the time, Stanley disputes the old canard. “There were plenty of atheists in those foxholes, but everybody was a philosopher, no matter what they believed,” he says.
After the war, Stanley looked for spiritual meaning. He became an Episcopal clergyman, eventually converted to Catholicism, then wandered away from organized religion. Now, he describes himself as a “positivist, rationalist, scientifically minded Buddhist.”
Stanley had loved poetry since boyhood and began to read the great Chinese poets of the Tang dynasty—Li Po, Wang Wei, Du Fu—while finishing service in Korea after World War II ended. Many of his poems, some of which have been published in these pages, concern his war experiences.
“It’s carnage and it’s always been carnage. We just try to put a nice face on it,” he says.
Stanley notes that the new president’s administration now would be allowing photographs of coffins returning from the front lines. “But that nice box with the beautiful flag, that’s not the real picture,” he reminds. “Especially if the body’s been laying there in the hot sun for a day.
“In a way, it’s like war is a sacrament of Western culture, almost a holy thing. Soldiers are like the high priests, the only ones allowed to really see. Like the temple in Jerusalem, back in ancient days, they’re the only ones allowed into the holy of holies to see what’s really there.”
Then Stanley chuckles. “Of course, when Vespasian went in and desecrated the temple, they asked him, ‘Did you see God?’ and he said, ‘Nothing in there but a fly.’”
‘Major wars are at an end’
“This here’s what they call ‘fruit salad,’” Kenneth Maxwell explains, removing his baseball cap and pointing to ribbons on its face. The Korean Service Medal, Navy Occupation Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal—each signifies an honor received for service to his country. And each makes the 78-year-old veteran proud.
At 16, the Omaha, Nebraska-born Maxwell joined the Navy Reserve; by 17, he was in the Navy and at sea. It was 1948, three years after the end of World War II. The bomb had been dropped. When he first realized there was a new war to fight, Maxwell was aboard the USS Rochester in Manila Bay, Philippines. It was a Sunday, and he was reading a Scientific America when at 3 o’clock in the morning, the PA came on. All hands on deck. Round up all boats.
Maxwell made a beeline for the radio shack to find out what was up. “North Korea’s invaded South Korea.”
He’d just finished a North Pacific cruise and was looking forward to time elsewhere. “So, this made the war personal for us. We had to go north again instead of south,” Maxwell laughs.
They stopped in Okinawa, Japan, to pick up crew. In Tokyo Bay, the admiral met with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. They made one more stop in Japan as well. “One of the points I want to make is what a help Japan was to us. They almost made up for Pearl Harbor,” he says.
As the Rochester headed north, Maxwell pondered what North Korea was thinking in going to war. They had never dominated the air or sea.
But when the United States arrived, its Navy’s efforts were, as Maxwell says, primarily engaged in “strategic withdrawal.” Establish a perimeter, evacuate ground troops. The Rochester cleared out troops from the famous Battle of the Pusan Perimeter: 4,599 battle deaths, 12,058 wounded, 401 reported captured and 2,107 reported missing in action.
Maxwell saw combat elsewhere, but the Navy’s role was similar: perimeters and evacuation. He patrolled devastated cities and saw Chinese infantry, who wore tennis shoes in spite of the freezing cold and snow, suffer more casualties from frostbite than artillery shells. Maxwell also often saw Russian ships on the horizon, just keeping an eye on things.
“I did such a good job, [President] Truman gave me an extra year,” he laughs of his honorable discharge, which came in 1952.
Then just 21, Maxwell took his GI Bill and moved in with parents in Sacramento. He worked at McClellan Air Force Base but eventually studied chemistry at the City College of San Francisco. During this time, he also was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He’d have to stay healthy the rest of his life, which led to his habit of taking long walks, something Maxwell, now age 78, enjoys, especially with his free Regional Transit pass.
His chemistry background led to a stint at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he had security clearance to assist scientists with nuclear weapons development. He recalls a late-night incident when an electron accelerator’s power was turned off, but still registering radiation. “It must be defective,” a physicist proclaimed. Maxwell didn’t agree. The physicist, against Maxwell’s disapproval, went inside the accelerator to find out; he indeed verified a high level of radiation.
Maxwell left the labs and was “this close” to earning a bachelor’s in biochemistry at UC Davis before Shell Oil Co. recruited him to research petrochemicals. He claims that the Army commissioned the company to manufacture 5,000 pounds of mescaline. They made 10,000 instead, says Maxwell, and he brought half of it with him to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco during the late 1960s, where he embraced the scene, LSD and the Hell’s Angels.
In 1977, the years of radiation exposure may have caught up with Maxwell: He was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which he believes he might have gotten directly from his work with plutonium at the Rocky Flats plant in Colorado. He went under the knife immediately after diagnosis, paid cash for the surgery and survived.
Maxwell “knocked around for a while” in the early ’80s and is now retired.
Today, he sports a leather Top Gun jacket he bought for $50 at a thrift shop in Casper, Wyo., and a blue Navy-type sweater, the same kind he wore at sea. His voice is coarse and his long, gray beard rests atop the jacket’s collar.
“Hopefully major wars are at an end. I think so. I think the United Nations will get more powerful, but that will happen because nations will get together and agree to it,” he reflects, noting his surprise that nuclear weapons haven’t been used in his lifetime since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He doesn’t think they’ll ever be used again.
Nowadays, Maxwell’s a couple months from his mortgage being completely paid off. When it is, he’s going to take a boat from Washington to visit his daughter in Alaska.
Back at sea for three days.
‘You need to support the troops’
Mike Shuchter thought he was going to Vietnam in 1967.
Since he was a 20-year-old college dropout who enlisted in the Army, it was a reasonable assumption.
“I was a pretty mainstream kid, very patriotic, because my father was a retired career Marine Corps aviator,” Shuchter says. “I reached a point where I didn’t know what I was doing or why, and there was a shootin’ war going on, so I might as well get a piece of it for myself.”
With some ROTC experience and two years of college, Shuchter was sent to Officer Candidate School and commissioned as a second lieutenant. But instead of Vietnam, he was sent to join the 7th Division in South Korea along the demilitarized zone. Eventually, Shuchter’s unit was posted on the south edge of the zone, where the mission was to build barriers to prevent infiltration by the North Koreans. In a bit of history often overlooked, the war in Korea was definitely not over. “We had an armistice, a cease-fire, but they told us upfront that this was still very much a hot zone,” he says.
During this period, North Korean forces regularly crossed the DMZ for intelligence gathering. “They were trying to snatch up officers—this was the same time that they were kidnapping Japanese civilians off the beaches, you know—and we were told that officers could not go down to the local villages and we had to be armed any time we were off-post, for our own protection.”
The DMZ consisted of the South Tape, then 2,000 meters of land to the demarcation line, then another 2,000 meters of land to the north edge. It was barren, and they were constantly spraying the area with weed killer, which the U.S. military finally acknowledged as Agent Orange.
The North Korean forces used loudspeakers to inform U.S. troops that they would not allow the barrier to be completed. Shuchter and co. shouted back: “Yeah, just watch us!”
Full-fledged battles were rare, but small-arms fire at night was common. “It became so rote that we could expect it. We’d look at our watches and say, ‘Get down, they’re about to start shooting,’” he recalls.
But it was no joke. Work convoys were ambushed, resulting in casualties. Constant harassment elevated tension.
“My understanding is that there was an agreement between Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il Sung to create enough havoc and enough threat along the DMZ to ensure that the two divisions there were not sent to Vietnam,” Shuchter says of the strategy.
As the war in Vietnam heated up, the military threat in Korea also escalated, with North Korean forces taking an American ship, the USS Pueblo, and using infiltrators to make an assassination attempt on Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s president.
“There was constant tension. It was kind of a surreal experience, though. We never knew who was friend and who was foe, which as I understand from the guys who served there was very much like it was in Vietnam,” Shuchter says.
Also similar to the Vietnam experience was the reception upon his return to the states. He was accosted in the airport by a man who wanted to argue about the war, then harassed as he walked home from a bus stop in his uniform. When Shuchter came back to his job at a California supermarket, he found that one of his co-workers had scrawled “baby killer” on his time card.
“I didn’t like the fact that they were taking us soldiers to task for policy that we didn’t make,” he said. “I didn’t understand how they couldn’t see that you could support the troops without supporting the reason we were there. You don’t have to support the policy, but you need to support the troops.”
The divisiveness that took root during the era is still troubling. “My wife says I never outgrew the ’50s,” Shuchter says. “Obviously, I think we needed to change on things like race and how women were treated, but I think we lost something in our ability to talk to each other.”
He points to his family’s tradition of military service, which goes back to the Civil War, including his father, grandfathers who served in World War I and a son who is a veteran of the first Gulf War.
“We’ve got a history of service, and I see this strict partisanship as being a disservice to my country.”
‘A great exchange of culture’
In Baghdad, Iraqis called Trevor Sparks “Bubba,” because it sounded like “Baba,” colloquial for “father.” But the nickname stuck with his peers because of the rapper “Bubba Sparxxx,” who was popular at the time.
Sparks enlisted in July 2001, during his last month of high school in Indiana and mere months before the Twin Towers collapsed. He wanted to travel, see the world, and within a year he was doing just that: north of Sacramento, at Beale Air Force Base, working on U-2 spy planes.
The U-2 planes fly at an altitude of at least 80,000 feet (but probably higher) while conducting seven- to 12-hour reconnaissance missions. A U-2 pilot suit costs a quarter-million dollars. Satellite time costs about $15,000 a minute. Sparks’ job was to make sure these planes were “mission ready.”
His first deployment was to Kuwait as a third-country national, or TCN, escort. The first of four deployments, this one basically consisted of sitting and watching Kuwaitis do construction near a base in Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base. He returned on Christmas Day, 2002.
Almost a year later, November 2003, he found out he’d be going to Baghdad. “I wasn’t disappointed. I looked at that as an opportunity,” Sparks remembers.
Camp Sather is a little bitty temporary Air Force base of 3,000 guarded by thousands of Army infantry just outside Baghdad International Airport. Sparks carried a gun on some days, an M-16 with 90 rounds, but normally wasn’t armed. Mail planes still came and went. Iraqis who could afford to leave the country still could book commercials flights, and did.
Sparks’ main duty in Iraq was to oversee laborers. Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Turks, Kurds—they may not all get along, but together they worked for the U.S. government, most earning five U.S. dollars a day. “That probably was more bothersome than being mortared,” Sparks says of what he views as unjust wages and hiring practices.
Every once in a while, Sparks would supervise a water-transport convoy from Sather, where giant bladders provided the soldiers with water, to a sprawling complex that was the source of all H2O. This meant three one-hour round trips on a lonely, unprotected highway. At the complex, the head garbage guy looked like the Iraqi Tony Soprano. Sparks befriended him, and then others, teaching them English and learning Arabic. “It was a great exchange of culture,” he says.
But the daily routine wore on Sparks. And in time, even days off became hard to bear. Always the bottled water. Stuck in a tent reading the same book. He became stir crazy, so he started volunteering at the triage, where wounded soldiers were given medical attention.
Bandages. Blood. Everything. Sparks wasn’t allowed in the triage operating room, but he did spend hours with patients in recovery. Every time he had a day off, Sparks would put on his uniform and talk to what he called “Purple Heart and 100 percent disability guys” who’d soon be on their way to Germany. “Playing Monopoly for eight hours, that’s cool,” he says of what this meant to him, just being there for men whose lives were forever changed by mere instances in combat.
Being under the constant threat of mortar attack also would come to have an effect on Sparks. Crack. Boom boom. Then sirens. Grab your gear out from underneath your bed, go to a bunker. Get your chemical gear, gas mask, pants, jacket, canteen, helmet and maybe a Game Boy or something to read, because you’d be in a bunker for hours.
“I don’t ever really talk about it. Sometimes you’d see the flash,” he says, whistling and making a “crack-crack” sound.
Back in the states, the tone of one of the bells at Beale reminded him of the mortar warning. He remembers a soldier who, on his first day at Sather, was hit by mortar shrapnel and lost his thumb. Pack up. Back to Germany. Just inches from being dead.
“Talk to anyone in my life and they say, ‘Well, Trevor didn’t come back different from Iraq. He just came back making better decisions for himself,’” Sparks says.
In July 2007, Sparks was discharged. Now, he attends Sacramento City College, getting general-ed classes out of the way and studying political science. He also counsels veterans and those receiving Veterans Affairs benefits.
But Iraq is still with him.
“With no disrespect to anyone that’s been there or to anyone that will go [to Iraq]: We joined the military for a reason, and that’s to defend the Constitution,” he says of a now-unpopular war, even with him. “And whatever way the Constitution is interpreted, when the commander in chief makes a decision, you have to follow it.”
With a caveat. “If you’re going to make an executive decision to invade a country, you had better be exceedingly well versed on the situation,” he says of former President George W. Bush.
Sparks, now 26, confesses his love for Midtown Sacramento and being part of a vibrant, urban scene. But still, the war haunts him. Recently, he couldn’t sleep and spent the entire night in the VA emergency room, just needing someone to talk to.
“I can’t forget,” he says.
‘I feel like my country just didn’t do me right’
Martin Montgomery wants closure.
Growing up in Arkansas, he was a likeable guy, a “somewhat smart jock,” popular. He played blocking back for the Razorbacks football team before enlisting in the National Guard in October 2002.
Two weeks after basic training, he got the call: Baghdad. Fifteen months.
“I was there. I was in the front, all the time, in the streets,” says Montgomery, now 26, of the tour that changed him forever.
When you fight a war, you see death, he explains, and you take death in, internalize it. “It’s a beautiful thing” to be able to do this, he says, but it’s also necessary, because you have to kill at a moment’s notice. “Quick Reaction Force” is the military lingo: You get a call and go, like a SWAT team, to where the bombs and rockets are. And you go in “guns blazing,” no time to hesitate.
For Montgomery, these moments were countless.
In Sadr City, when orders come on the radio, he jumps in the truck, not thinking, and heads into battle. “At this point, you’re almost looking forward to it,” he confesses. “At least, I know what is going on when I roll up to this intersection in Baghdad: I’m shooting anything that looks fucked up.”
Other times, it’s different. A friend gets up on the gun instead of him and is hit with a rocket-propelled grenade. Another time, he gets in the wrong truck, and later the right truck explodes.
“It fucks with you. I’m at the end of my rope.”
He remembers days guarding a checkpoint—cars that don’t stop, keep speeding. Montgomery yells at one, “Qeff! Stop!” But the driver accelerates. He unloads on the car and the driver, a drunk, is killed—along with two women and children in the back seats.
There are no bombs on board.
Innocents die everywhere, and this rattles Montgomery. Shooting first. Breaking down doors, or “kickdoors,” like busting into a stash house on Grand Theft Auto. He was never a gamer, but likens the streets of Baghdad to a video game. “It was like the Iraqi people were not human, less than human. And that fucks with me, because I’m African-American, and my grandmother was born in 1910, and she was oppressed.”
The nightmares get worse. Montgomery remembers being in a familiar neighborhood when, suddenly, three rockets launch at him. Then crossfire. Then an IED explosion up the road. A man in a car is between the blast and Montgomery, and the Iraqi freaks out, driving faster toward his caravan. What do you do?
You take the car out.
“I shot him in the head,” Montgomery remembers. Then the man’s daughters run out of the house. They’d witnessed it all.
“It was the most fucked up thing I ever saw.”
Back home in 2005, nothing was the same. He got off the bus and in his mind was excited, but didn’t feel any emotion. “That’s when I knew something was wrong,” Montgomery says.
His “hometown homeboys”—who he’d played football, hunted and fished with all his life—had started doing hard drugs. OxyContin. Heroin. He himself started binge drinking, all day, every day. Severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Nobody could cope.
Finally, Montgomery had to get away; three years ago, he transferred to the Auburn National Guard, then moved to Sacramento.
And still life is a challenge. Montgomery can’t sleep. He won’t take meds for fear of becoming a vegetable. Emotions run on and off; he recently attended a basketball game and cried during the national anthem.
“Why am I here?” he asks. “I was supposed to be in this truck. Those rockets came right at me, and then mere feet from me spun out and blew gravel into my face. But I lived.”
What Montgomery wants now more than anything else is to be discharged, closure, but the National Guard won’t do it. He’s stuck for a couple more years. Still adding chapters.
“I feel like my country just didn’t do me right,” he confesses. “But I served my country. I’m proud of that.”