No single story can capture what it's like to serve in uniform. Military experience is shaped by different eras, gender, service branches, officer versus enlisted service, combat versus non-combat experience.
That's why for Veteran's Day this year, KPCC reached out to listeners who have served in any fashion and asked them to share their individual stories and perspectives.
These stories, all from Angelenos, open a window into some of what the experience can be like —funny, tragic, heroic and sometimes mundane.
Memorial Day is for the departed. Veterans Day is for the living. We hope these stories can help bring the community of veterans to life for you.
Maureen Gerwig is the widow of the late Michael Gerwig, who served a year-long tour in Vietnam as a radiotelephone operator in the U.S. Army. That meant he wore a wireless radio on his back, with an antenna stretching high above his head. And it also meant he was one of the first people the enemy would try to kill. Gerwig survived the war and he and Maureen travelled the world together.
In 1991, the Gerwigs were on vacation in St. Petersburg, Russia, joined by a translator named Boris.
John Smith retired just a couple years ago as a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, and realized he was different from many of the other officers soon after he was commissioned.
He realized he's gay.
In the era of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" he had to keep his true self a secret from everyone he served with, save for just two heterosexual friends he trusted. Over 21 years, this secret took a toll on Smith and shapes the way he thinks of Veterans Day today.
The U.S. Marine Corps' officer corps is 97 percent male, which put Kristi Ericson in the tiny 3 percent minority who are women. Early on in her 25 year career, when she moved to a new unit, she was often the first woman who'd ever been assigned there.
Ericson says most of the Marines she led quickly got over whatever misgiving they may have had about women, and simply focused on the mission at hand just as they would for any other officer.
That included her service as a Lieutenant Colonel in Iraq's Al Anbar province.
On August 16th 1944, James Gregory took off on his sixth mission as the navigator aboard a B-17 bomber. After dropping their bomb load, anti-aircraft artillery took out three of the engines on his plane, and all nine crew members bailed out.
Gregory landed by parachute deep inside Germany.
He landed just fine, and he was quickly confronted by a group of farmers. One of the farmers took out a 9-mm pistol and shot him. Before the farmer could finish him off, a German soldier appeared and saved Gregory's life. He spent the rest of his war as a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft 3, the camp that earlier had seen a mass break-out by prisoners — a story later told in the classic movie The Great Escape.
For Gregory, Veterans Day isn't about his generation — it's about his father's. His dad was an infantry sergeant on the western front in World War 1, and for Gregory November 11 will always be Armistice Day.
In 1960, as the holidays approached, Fritz Frauchiger had nowhere to go. His parents were overseas with the U.S. State Department, so his buddy John Williams invited him to spend Christmas and New Year's at his parent's home in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
When Frauchiger, a young enlisted Navy sailor and Williams, a young Air Force ROTC cadet, tried to go back to their duty stations after Christmas, they found themselves stranded at the train station in Cincinnati. With 24 hours to kill, Frauchiger and Williams had just $5 between them. It was the dead of winter, with snow all around and they were dressed in their dress uniforms — not cold weather gear.
They didn't know what to do. But the people of Cincinnati saw their uniforms, and took them in.
Life aboard a submarine can be tough, with men sharing bunks and weeks spent without seeing the sun. Small irritations can easily be magnified in those conditions. Dick Oliver served aboard two submarines from 1948 to 1952, and has always remembered one particular incident that happened after his boat left Pearl Harbor on its way to a combat patrol off North Korea.
Oliver's sub had a new commanding officer who insisted on playing an annoying song over the sub's loudspeaker system — on repeat for an hour at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The crew's morale plummeted and no one had the courage to confront the skipper, and ask him to stop it.
After eight days of listening to the song for three hours each day, Dick Oliver had enough.
Don Ray was a Sentry Dog Handler in a military police unit in Vietnam. He and his German shepherd Fritz were stationed at Soc Trang Army Airfield, south of the Mekong Delta, and Fritz would spot or sniff out enemy troops trying to attack the base and breach their defenses.
When Ray left Vietnam, his dog Fritz stayed behind and continued to serve in combat.
Ray missed his teammate who'd saved his life again and again. He now has a new canine colleague — also named Fritz — who's trained to help sniff out trouble.