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My firsthand lesson in American history

Published: Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 11:43 a.m. CST • Updated: Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 12:04 p.m. CST

This past Veteran’s Day, I headed over to the VFW Post 1655 to take a photo during an awards presentation — nothing out of the ordinary for a reporter in a community the size of Newton.

After dinner and the awards had wrapped up, however, I was making small talk with a few members of the VFW Ladies’ Auxiliary and I was asked, have I seen the mural?

Now, I’ll admit: I’m pretty new to town and, aside from knowing where to get groceries and coffee, I’m still learning my way around Newton. It was my first trip to the VFW, and this mural sounded like a must-see.

I was led back into the bar area and immediately dwarfed by the display of military regalia donning the walls. The mural depicts members of various branches of the service, painted nearly 100 years ago, while another wall is dedicated solely to medals and badges of those who served from Jasper County.

Old battalion flags stand upright in the corners, no less proud than when they flew in Europe, Korea and Vietnam.

I snapped a few photos, but the noise of my camera’s shutter seemed almost intrusive. As I scanned over every Purple Heart and every badge of honor in silence, it occurred to me just how much Jasper County values its veterans.

Since then, I’ve learned that both my grandfathers were sailors, and a handful of my distant, late relatives served our country during both World Wars — both things that never occurred to me in my 22 years. 

While I’ll only ever have the opportunity to chat with one of them about his time in the service, I’ve come to realize the importance of preserving their experiences on paper.

John Jennings’ retirement in early November only built upon this, as I was charged with the duty of sitting down with local veterans and serving as an outlet for them to share their stories with the community. 

I went into my first interview slightly intimidated by the fact that most things I’ll accomplish in my lifetime will still likely pale in comparison to the feats and defeats of veterans everywhere. After two months though, these conversations — regularly lasting a couple hours — became the thing I look forward to most each week.

I’ve heard unmatched tales of camaraderie and brotherhood in the harshest of conditions. I’ve heard stories of undying love that spans not only years, but oceans as well. For the first time, when I look at the faded and yellowed photographs of these men and women, I know the stories behind them — stories you’d never find in a textbook.

For this, I owe every veteran, in Jasper County and throughout the country, a sincere thank you: not just for your service, but for the most captivating and concrete history lesson I could ask for.

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