When I asked for stories about why people joined the military I got a lot of different reasons, but the one theme that ran through them was faith, faith in God, faith in country, faith in families, and in fellowman. Some of these stories are filled with emotion, all of them are true. My question to these former soldiers was, why did you join up? And “What does camaraderie mean to you? These are the answers I got…
Commander of American Legion Post 25 in Moulton, he joined the Navy the day his draft notice came in the mail. He knew that he wanted to go into some sort of technical field and he felt even at a young age that his chances of entering that field lay with either the Navy or the Air Force. “I got my draft notice and didn’t open it, just put it back in the mailbox,” he admitted. “I went that day and joined the Navy.”
As it turns out, it was the right decision for him. He confesses that he is a techno-junkie, and his later career with 3-M offered him a lot of ways in which to use the skills he learned in the Navy.
Among those skills was a penchant for leadership. He also became a preacher and is currently the Post Commander for our local American Legion chapter. A role in which his skills are used almost daily, “These are my folks,” he said, using the term endearingly. “I understand their emotions.”
Terry’s aircraft carrier was positioned just off the coast of Viet Nam. He remembers well the whine of planes and the whirr of helicopters coming and going, delivering death to the enemy hidden in the lush jungle foliage of a country torn by combat and in a day and age when war wasn’t a popular thing back here at home. But now that years have passed and the feelings of resentment and rejection have abated, what he recalls most about his time in the service is the camaraderie of the men and women he served with.
The dictionary defines the word camaraderie as “a feeling of close friendship and trust among a group of people.” For those in the military, where life and death situations occur on a round-the-clock basis, it is imperative that they form these bonds of friendship that cannot exist without the element of trust. “You have to know that your buddy has your back,” said Terry. “You have to be willing to lay down your life for your fellow soldiers.”
He was reminded recently of a story he’d heard somewhere about two siblings, a young boy and girl. The boy became gravely ill and needed an organ. When his family was tested it was discovered that his sister was a perfect match. The sister was called into a room by her parents and the situation was explained to her carefully. She asked if she could think it over. When the morning came, she announced that she would be willing to donate one of her kidneys to help her brother live. When the day came for the surgery she was wheeled into the operating room and prepped by the nurses. The doctor stepped over to say something encouraging to her and she asked quietly, “When will it happen?” The doctor, thinking she was referring to the surgery itself, answered, “Soon,” and patted her arm. When the nurse came back the little girl asked again, “when will it happen?” the nurse, not having heard the previous conversation asked, “when will what happen?” to which the child answered calmly, “when will I die?”
“She was willing to lay down her life for her brother,” Terry explained. “That’s what God did by giving his Son for us. It’s what military personnel are taught from day one, that they should be willing to take a bullet or throw themselves on a grenade to save their brothers in arms.”
Harold and Chris Letson:
Harold Letson and his son, Chris, were both in the National Guard unit that once met in Moulton. Chris actually left just before Harold arrived in Kuwait. “I met some of his buddies in Kuwait and they told me he already left with the advance party (the group that prepares for the return of the main body),” Harold explained.
Chris’ unit from Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, was deployed the first week in April in 2003, during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). They were sent to the Sunni Triangle (the three towns of Fallujah, Ar Ramadi, and Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown.) As a Platoon Sgt. Chris was responsible for a group of men.
“They were assigned in Fallujah at a suspected radiation site,” Harold continued. “While at the radiation site they were overrun by Al Qaeda. They had run low on supplies and ammo as it eventually became a hand to hand fight. (Chris related this to his father after both had safely returned home). “As he was telling me about the viciousness of the fight, he said that he and his men had concluded they were fighting Al Qaeda because their strength and agility in fighting was far greater than the average Iraqi terrorist.” Chris felt that he was fortunate to have his sharp knife but Harold says that after saying that, Chris became silent and Harold didn’t question him anymore about it.
“The whole purpose for being there originally was to search and find weapons of mass destruction,” Harold reminded us. “After several weeks none were found so Chris and his unit were relocated to the main group whose responsibility was to kick in doors in the middle of the night, apprehending suspected terrorists for interrogation.”
“One day before my deployment, when they had only been at the radiation site for a week they were in route to obtain more ammo and supplies,” Harold went on. “Chris and one of his soldiers ran over an IED. It was a 155mm explosive with a “doorbell” device attached to it and as they drove over it without realizing it the device exploded. It blew the HUMVEE into the middle of an intersection. It was a total loss.”
“Chris and the other soldier were very fortunate as God was with them,” said Harold firmly. “The only injuries they received were numerous bruises and scratches and a loss of hearing for the rest of the day.”
Chris had casually relayed this information to his wife in an email, which she shared with her father-in-law. “As I cried and thanked God for His mercy in saving Chris’ life I realized just how close he came to death,” said Harold, still shaken after all this time.
“Someone (it had to be a soldier) said “there are no atheists in foxholes,” Harold recalled. “The point being that soldiers tend to rely more upon their Creator during times of war.”
He had been a preacher for nearly 30 years and thought of himself as a man of faith. “But when my son was deployed I realized just how weak and vulnerable I was.”
Harold admits that for nearly a month he cried and became depressed, worried that he might lose his son. “Then I realized what I knew all along; God had given His Son for all of us. I had never thought of that from God’s perspective before - that is when I realized He knew exactly how I felt. All I could do was pray constantly and trust in God knowing that as much as I loved my son, God loved him far more!”
Ret. Air Force Master Sgt. Bill Cole:
Cole enlisted out of necessity in 1961. “I remember exactly what motivated me to join,” Cole laughed. “I’d quit my job in Decatur two days earlier and had been everywhere looking for another one,” he recalls. “I went to Huntsville to put in an application and on the way back I saw a billboard for the recruiter’s office. I went right then, without discussing it with anyone, and enlisted in the Air Force.”
Twenty years and 21 days later, he retired.
He was in communications, so he never saw hand to hand combat, but he provided a critical service for his fellow brothers. And brothers are what they became…
“There aren’t any other relationships exactly like the camaraderie you experience in the service,” he mused. “In some ways it’s closer than family.”
This brotherhood is a thread that bonds military men and women in ways few of us can totally understand. Maybe it’s because in the course of a normal day people aren’t shooting at us or planting bombs under our cars, or maybe it’s just that we live in a bubble of security that is so fragile and so blessed that we take it for granted, when they have lived and experienced such different realities.
Todd Wert grew up poor on Mississippi’s gulf coast. The most important job that high school graduates there looked forward to was working in the shipyards. He sought something different…
He spent a year in California before graduating, but he still had wanderlust, “I wanted to see what else was out there,” he said recently. Although he worked several jobs in auto body shops and such and was exposed to people who had served in the Navy, he really didn’t talk to anyone specifically about his decision to join. When he went in it was just for four years, or so he thought, but during the time he was enlisted he met and married his wife, Connie, and together they traveled for the following years of his military career. Their first stop was in Germany. They loved it.
The Wert’s made their permanent home here in Lawrence County, in 2017, after seeing the world. Todd’s office walls are lined with pictures of the faces of his buddies from his years in the service. He probably knows as much or more about them than about his family. “You are in the wet and cold, and it sucks, and you look over to your right, and then to your left, and there are people in the same shape you are in, so you aren’t in it alone,” he tries to explain the complicated bond that forms between people who see the best and worst of one another because of living in cramped quarters, or sweating in a hot desert, or going without any of the comforts of home for long periods of time. It changes people. It makes you aware of the fact that when you are in danger, you rely on these people for your very life.
“I’ve seen some of the worst places on the face of the earth,” he recalls. “And one thing it did was to make me appreciate that we live in the greatest country on earth,” he said softly. “I feel blessed to be an American. Some people just don’t get it…”
He looks up at those faces again, scanning each familiar feature. “You would lay down your life for any of them and you know that they would do the same for you,” he said with confidence.
Todd’s first job in the Army was in communications, but as he progressed through the ranks he took various assessment tests to determine his strongest traits. He wound up in Special Ops. “When you are in special ops you are there with people who actually want to be there, the ones who complain and whine don’t make it that far,” he said. “The ones who are successful, less than 50% of what the class started with, are the ones you serve with later, and you know you can trust them with your life,” he said. “You spend hours and hours together and in many ways, it’s like more than family bonds.”
Todd sometimes has the opportunity to speak to young people and he always talks about the opportunities that the military has to offer that can’t be found anywhere else. The ability to see the world is just one of them. Learning a trade or a specialized skill set is another reason to check into the prospect of joining the military. Although it’s not for everyone, it is one of the best ways to get an education and to learn to survive in more ways than just dodging bullets; it can build strength, both physical and mental, it can offer people great benefits in their later life, and it can also cause great mental anguish, but it is the camaraderie that seems to see people through the worst of times and the best of times.
Jim Lewey:Jim Lewey graduated from LCHS in 1999. He wanted to join up in high school, but decided that if he didn’t go to college then, he probably wouldn’t ever go. He graduated from Huntingdon College with a major in kinesiology.
Then, suddenly, everything changed. “9-11 happened while I was in college,” said Jim. “Right then I knew I was goin’ in.” He enlisted, finished up graduate college in December, and left for basic training on January 2nd.
He served in Colombia, South America. The camaraderie aspect of that period in his life is still strong, “There are four of us from our old team that still get together once a year (actually this past weekend) and have for the past 8 years,” he said.
He dated his wife, Lauren, when they were both in college. They got married in 2004, while Jim was still serving. He flew in the Friday before their wedding, got married on Saturday, and flew out without her the next day, Sunday.
Later, Jim had the opportunity to come home on leave. He flew in, then flew back out about 10 days later, not knowing at the time that they’d be parents in about nine months. In 2008, when the time got close, he flew in for the birth of their twin boys. “I got in the day before and left about ten days later, then didn’t get to see them again until they were four months old.”
Those are the kinds of sacrifices that military folks make for the rest of us. Perhaps we don’t think about those things when we are coming home with our own babies, or having a holiday meal surrounded by our families, or sleep safely and soundly in comfortable beds at night.
We owe them all such deep debts of gratitude…come out and pay your respects and shake the hands of the men and women who fought for our country and our right to be free on Friday, November 8th. Be sure to remain on the square for live entertainment with a very special candlelight ceremony afterward, and the opportunity to tell these fine veterans in person how much you appreciate them!
Because of some scheduling conflicts there might be a very slight change in the following...
Line up for non-veteran floats and other vehicles might be changed from the LCHS parking lot to the Coliseum parking lot directly across the street. Someone will be there to direct you. Because of school buses leaving, line up won’t start until 3:30.
Because of the threat of severe cold the ceremony on the square might be moved to the old Farmer’s Gin, two blocks west of the courthouse square. There will be someone on the square to direct you before the parade starts. Signs will indicate where the ceremony will be held, if not on the square.
Live entertainment will be provided by talented local musicians.
Candles will be provided for the ceremony, but you are welcome to bring your own in containers or lanterns.
Parade is scheduled to begin at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 8.
Walkers should line up at base of old City Hall where the senior center is located now. You will fall in behind ROTC as police car stops for you there.
Veterans should line up at the Lion’s Club parking lot.
All others should line up at the LCHS front parking lot or the coliseum parking lot, to be determined.
For further information please contact Wendy At the LC Archives, 256-974-1757 or Loretta at 256-476-1166.
Come and shake hands and visit with this year’s Grand Marshal, Fred Gillespie, at the Jackson House from 1-3:00 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 8, this meet and greet is informal, come and go. Refreshments will be provided.