Stories from warriors on Veterans Day
MARBLEHEAD — There was little food, water, or sleep to be had during the seemingly endless Battle of Najaf in August 2004. Marines had secured the police station in the heart of the Iraqi city, and withstood six hours of heavy fire before First Lieutenant Seth W. Moulton led his platoon to another assault on enemy forces in a cemetery.
It was the battle for which Moulton would later receive a Bronze Star medal, but what sticks with him is this: the moment he leaned back against a tombstone, exhausted and exasperated, and opened his flak jacket to take a breath. He felt guilty for that even before learning one of his men had been shot in the neck.
“Not only had I taken a break, but while I was taking a break, he died alone,” Moulton said.
“The reason why I tell you that story is not just because of the experience, but because of what it’s meant for my life going forward,” Moulton said. “Everybody thinks I’m a crazy workaholic. It probably would have been helpful to explain this to the folks on my campaign.”
The war experiences that shaped the lives of veterans — from World War II and Korea, to Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan — came vividly alive on Veterans Day in a community forum believed to be the first of its kind. Organized by Moulton, now a US congressman, the meeting in Marblehead’s town hall drew more than 150 people to hear the war stories of 20 additional veterans, some of whom had signed up to speak, and some of whom were inspired on the spot to testify.
Their stories were as varied as their backgrounds. There was Simon Tongo, a Christian refugee from South Sudan who fled to America and ended up serving in Iraq. “I didn’t come here because I want to come here,” he said. “There is somebody who didn’t want me to live my way of life.” While learning English at North Shore Community College, the Arabic speaker was recruited as an Army linguist.
There was Edward Dion, a Vietnam veteran who ticked off the series of “lies” he’d been told by American leaders from President Lyndon B. Johnson to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “I already don’t trust my government and what they tell me,” he said. “I support my veterans.”
And there was Janice Josephine Carney , a transgender veteran who served in Vietnam when she was known as John Joseph Carney. “I served honorably and I’m proud of my service,” she said.
The unique storytelling event was inspired by journalist and author Sebastian Junger, whose 2014 Vanity Fair piece on post-traumatic stress disorder explored the isolation veterans find on returning to an individualistic society from the intense camaraderie of war. He recommended replacing Veterans Day parades with town hall meetings where veterans could air their combat experiences in dramatic retellings.
“A community ceremony like that would finally return the experience of war to our entire nation, rather than just leaving it to the people who fought,” Junger wrote.
Moulton’s team seized on that idea for the forum, which was moderated by Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University emeritus professor of history and international relations, who served in Vietnam and the first Gulf War.
Junger’s suggestion to organizers, he said: “Keep it pure.” The forum shouldn’t resemble any other tribute people could find on YouTube.
“The less this looks like anything else, the better,” Junger said after the forum.
The forum, in Marblehead’s historic Abbot Hall, could have been a town hall meeting, but one brimming over with emotions. Kevin Flike, an Army special forces engineer, described how he was saved by one of the Afghan soldiers he’d been training for two frustrating years, making him feel better about all that time he’d been “wondering what I was doing in Afghanistan putting myself in harm’s way.”
“He risked his life to try to save mine,” he said.
Still, Flike came awfully close to not making it, facing emergency surgery, last rites, and “guys who hadn’t paid me a compliment in three years were coming up telling me they love me.”
Moulton, who was elected last year to the Sixth Congressional District, made service a centerpiece of his campaign but didn’t talk about his commendations. The Globe reported last year that he had not highlighted his Bronze Star medal for valor or another, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medal for valor.
“I don’t like telling war stories and it’s just very personal,” Moulton said after the event. “But I believe in what we’re doing today.”
Junger, who wrote a book called “War,” also co-directed a war documentary, “Restrepo,” which followed a battalion through Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. One of the men featured in the film, Army Sergeant Brendan O’Byrne, told the assembly that during his first major firefight, he was taking pictures and videos from the top of a mountain — not realizing his roommate was being shot down below.
“I realized you had to take war much more seriously than I did,” he said.
When a medic in his platoon was killed, he could barely face it.
“I hated for the first time in my life. I wanted to kill people,” O’Byrne said. That anger, he said, “washed out sadness. It washed out everything.”
Now 31, and a student at the University of New Hampshire, O’Byrne often speaks to groups about his experiences but called Wednesday’s storytelling event, “one of the most powerful things I’ve ever been in.”
“That is healing at its finest,” he said.