Jim Sullivan talks about that hypothetical closet he felt he lived in for years after the Vietnam War.
“It had nothing to do with lack of pride, hiding or willingness to stand up and take action if needed,” said Sullivan, a 65-year-old Wichita Realtor. “It had to do with getting on with my life and not being labeled as the Nam Vet of that era.
“Remember, so many of our returning combat vets were so shell shocked and dependent on alcohol and drugs that there was very little pity or support.”
For Wilbur Smith, who was born on Veterans Day in 1921, “Being a veteran means I was ready to serve my country whenever they wanted me.”
For Marla Harris, a Master Sergeant in the Kansas Air National Guard, serving in the military gave her sense of belonging.
“I wanted to belong to something and be part of making a difference,” she said.
Veterans of all ages and from all conflicts will remember their service today on Veterans Day.
World War II
Wilbur Smith was born in Fredonia on Armistice Day – Nov. 11, 1921. Today, he will celebrate his 90th birthday.
As a World War II and Korean War-era veteran, he served in three branches of the military – Navy, Marines and Army Reserves, serving mostly stateside in the hospital corps.
Smith went into the Navy in 1942 as an apprentice seaman. He was one of 16 million American men and women who served their country during World War II.
Smith quickly passed his tests to become a Pharmacist Mate, 1st Class. He transferred to the Marines in 1945 for a year and then was discharged in 1947.
When he joined the Army Reserves in 1949, Smith remembers his wife, Hazel, wasn’t pleased.
“My wife said, ‘I didn’t give you permission to join the Army.’ I said, ‘I didn’t know I needed your permission.’ ”
He soon left the reserves with a dependency discharge in 1950 because he and his wife were having twins. All told, they would have seven children.
Vets from his era “are dying off pretty rapidly,” Smith said. It has been estimated 1.7 million World War II vets are still alive. Most are in their late 80s and 90s. They are dying, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, at a rate of 1,000 a day.
“I’m glad to be celebrating my 90th birthday. Glad I have lived that long,” Smith said. “I’m glad to be a veteran.”
Jim Sullivan was 17 when he asked his mother to sign his enlistment papers, giving him permission to join the Marine Corps. He couldn’t wait to wear a uniform.
“I thought it was an adventure,” Sullivan said. “I thought I’d be going across country. It was real sweet.”
By the time he turned 18, Sullivan was in survival mode, stationed in Vietnam, building an air strip at the Chu Lai Marine Base.
“I was fighting for my other Marine brothers, and we were serving our country,” he said.
But the sentiment of the nation was turning. While Americans supported the military’s efforts during World War II, many Americans questioned the nation’s involvement in Vietnam. More than 58,000 Americans were killed in the war, which ended for the United States on April 30, 1975, with the fall of Saigon.
In 1966 when Sullivan came home, he arrived on a cot in the back of a bus. He had a fever and was drifting in and out of consciousness. Protestors met Sullivan’s bus with signs and threw things.
“It was eggs, fruit and stuff,” he said.
Sullivan didn’t talk much about his experiences for decades. He calls that time his closet.
“Our closet was about forgetting and moving on with our life and fitting into the society of civilian life and being productive,” he said.
Less than a decade ago, one of his lieutenant’s from Vietnam got in touch with him through the Internet. Ever since, he’s been going to reunions and helping support veterans of all conflicts and wars.
“All of us are humbled by what we experienced,” Sullivan said. “Our heroes are those that were killed in action, missing in action and disabled for life. The rest of us were just doing our job.”
Iraq and Afghanistan
Jason Carr signed up for the Marine Corps on a whim when he was 18 years old.
“I decided on a Wednesday to join and on the next Sunday I was on a plane headed to San Diego,” said Carr, now 34. “The reason I did it was, in part, because all the men in my family had served in the military. But, I also like a challenge.
“I had big plans in the Marine Corps. But then, I met my wife and that changed that. If I hadn’t met her, I’d still be in the Marine Corps.”
Now, he’s in the Kansas National Guard and in his military career has been sent to nearly 30 countries, including recent tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He trained local forces, guarded borders and helped with humanitarian work.
“I have been in many close calls,” Carr said. “I am just glad to live where I do and still be alive.
“There is nothing like home. In other countries, people don’t have the quality of life we do. They don’t have the opportunities we have here in America. I have been involved in the humanitarian aid in Africa. You see that and it breaks your heart.”
The recent conflicts are different too in that they bring even more immediacy into people’s lives. Cell phones and the Internet have made it possible for families to talk with their loved ones serving overseas.
They have also changed the faces of veterans. Women are entering the military and leaving changed.
“We joined the military because we wanted to serve our country,” said Marla Harris, commander of Post 3115 on West Douglas. She is on full-time duty as a Master Sergeant in the Kansas Air National Guard’s 184th Intelligence Wing at McConnell Air Force Base.
Now, 40, she joined the Army at age 18. She has served in South Korea and in support of Desert Storm.
“When I joined, it was hard – as a female – from Kansas,” Harris said. “It was a struggle. I wanted to serve my country. I just loved the sound of the U.S. Army, and I loved watching the Army Reserves train.
“When I was growing up, I struggled with my family. I had a tough childhood. I wanted a sense of belonging somewhere. The Army saved me from making some wrong choices. And, it paid me to explore the world.”
Each of today’s veterans -- from World War II and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan -- speak of camaraderie they share with other veterans.
“We learn to just be open,” Harris said. “Young or old, each of us has something to offer. We just have to take the time to listen.”