War Stories

Tuesday, 13 December 2011


Storytelling is the art of capturing moments of our lives and sharing those experiences with others. Storytellers make you laugh, cry, relate and question. In honor of Veteran’s Day and those affected by war, five local community members shared their Personal Reflections of War on November 10, 2011 at Catherine Kasper Home Auditorium. This was the first in a series of events sponsored by the Intergenerational Living and Learning Committee and the public was invited.

The auditorium was filled to capacity. People lined the walls; youth offered their seats to the elderly. Sr. Michelle Dermody, PHJC asked for blessings on the program. May Crider, Lindenwood Event Coordinator, lead the audience in singing our national anthem. Many patriotic elderly residents rose and sang, causing nurses to spring to attention as wheelchair alarms sounded.

Chris Biggs, Catherine Kasper Life Center Administration, shared her stepfather’s photo library and narrative in a video that chronicled his experiences as a member of the 351st Engineer Company E during WW II. Sgt. Glendon J. Meredith’s company provided engineering services for over two years in England and France, eventually helping the Third Army division in the Battle of the Bulge. He spoke of the close friendships he developed and the engineering hurdles that accompany the movement of thousands of troops and equipment. During their deployment in Europe, they erected over 360,000 square feet of barracks, 47,000 sq. ft. of hangers and many miles of roads, railroads and water lines.

Fast forward to Iraq and Afghanistan. Andrew Wilson, son of co-worker Margaret Bonen, Memory Unit Manager at Catherine Kasper Live Center, spoke to the audience of his experience in the recent Middle East wars. Andrew served as an engineer, similar to Sgt. Glen in WWII, but his bases were built in the desert. He shared with the audience the harsh living conditions and how difficult it was not trusting civilians. The Iraqi people were friendly, but any one of them could be carrying explosives. They were under continuous sniper attack. He lost friends to roadside bombs. He thanked God for his safe return and asked that we all pray for the soldiers that remain in the Middle East.

In a videotaped interview, Maria Center resident Alice Van Handel read from a letter her husband wrote before he passed. During WWII, Ralph Van Handel served in the U.S. Army and liberated Buchenwald concentration camp in Weimar, Germany. When they arrived, the remaining prisoners were in terrible shape. One offered to guide the soldiers around Buchenwald and show them how life was for those captured. The story touched many in the audience who had lost family members during the atrocities of the Nazi government.

Van Bui, a Vietnamese boat refugee, goes by the American name of Joanne. Joanne was thirteen when American troops withdrew from South Vietnam. Joanne’s father was imprisoned for being sympathetic to the Americans. Her mother had to find food for her husband, Joanne and her seven siblings. The North Vietnamese did not feed prisoners so it was up to Joanne’s mother to take food to the prison or her husband would starve. Joanne’s mother, unable to feed them all, made the hardest decision of her life. She put Joanne and her sister on a small crowded rowboat, and sent them out to sea in hopes they would find a better life. She wept not knowing if she would ever see her daughters again.

After days in the open ocean with no food or water, bailing water with their bare hands, a French vessel picked them up and took the girls to a refugee camp in Polynesia. They spent the next two years in deplorable conditions with barely enough food to survive.

Joanne was finally able to enter the United States, sponsored by her grandparents. She became a U.S. citizen, got her bachelors degree in Social Services, married, had two children and now owns a nail salon business in Plymouth, Indiana. Her moving story of separation and hope brought many to tears.

James E. Neumann, USMC shared his story on video. Jim served two tours in Vietnam, in Danang and Saigon. He volunteered for the Marines instead of being drafted in hopes of better training and improving his chances of coming home. He worked in munitions technology and on the prototype for modern ‘smart bombs.’

Jim felt the war was politicized, and while he agreed that the US was right in helping the South Vietnamese people, he disagreed on how it was being done. While he was proud to serve, his actions “devastated the countryside, and killed many people.” He still feels terrible guilt over what he has done. It affected his first marriage, and it took him many years to sort himself out. Humbled, Jim “harbors no hate, only love for all living things.”

Jim honored WWII veterans saying. “It was to be ‘the war that ends all wars.’ The world would have been a very different place without that victory.” Jim spoke proudly about our service men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, “They are ALL volunteers, and not one is being drafted!” They felt the same calling as Jim, and answered that call, risking their lives for freedom.

After the presentation, many stayed to discuss their own experiences of war. Throughout the Ministry Center, people spoke of pain and loss, the cost of freedom, and the brave speakers who shared their stories in the heart-moving program.

(A videotape of the presentation is available for viewing at the Ancilla College Library.)