When I arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to my first duty station Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota as a photojournalist in the world’s greatest Air Force, I was eager to tell peoples’ stories. While tackling what I believed to be one of my first real, in-depth features, I was told by my supervisor to track down a World War II veteran who could add to the story.
National World War II Memorial, Washington, D.C. (May 26, 2004) – Established by the American Battle Monuments Commission, the memorial honors all military veterans of World War II, the citizens on the home front, the nation at large, and the high moral purpose and idealism that motivated the nation’s call to arms. On May 29, 2004, the memorial will be formally dedicated with an estimated 200,000 people expected to attend, and includes 100,000 visiting veterans of all wars. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Daniel J. McLain)
My current project was a fact-heavy history piece about the 8th Air Force’s involvement in WWII. I thought my story was good as it was, but I humored my supervisor and started making calls.
A week later and I was driving downtown to pick up the 89-year-old B-17 Flying Fortress ball turret gunner who was supposed to add value to my “already perfect” article. I had always been good talking with senior citizens. My grandfather, who also served during WWII, lived with us growing up, so conversation and interaction was natural and comfortable. In fact, in many ways he reminded me of my grandfather, which allowed me to take to the gentleman instantly. Almost four hours later without a single dull moment, I knew Leo was someone I wanted to spend time with again. So I did.
Leo and I spoke often. We had dinner and met with him and his friends for breakfast. We exchanged Christmas gifts and I brought him as my date to base events. As often as my schedule allowed, I made a point to spend time together. When he told me stories about the war or just life in general, I was like a sponge, eager to soak up every ounce of information. He quickly became one of my favorite people in the world.
Over the next four years our friendship grew strong and I began to consider Leo family. He appreciated me involving him in military-life things like the Air Force Ball or Air Force Association banquets. I cherished his company and stories. Little did I know, throughout those years, he was teaching me a lesson I wasn’t able to learn earlier in life.
My grandfather had always wanted to share war stories. He would comment, “When I was in the Navy…” but instantly I tuned out. I was a teenager who didn’t care much for history. When I was 18 years old and leaving for college my grandpa passed away. I was deeply saddened and mourned his death, but never realized what I lost until I met Leo nearly a decade later.
Leo taught me that history does matter and those stories are important. He taught me that we make choices in life today, especially as service members, because of those who paved the way for us. He showed me what resiliency is and how courage and perseverance can overcome all. But most importantly, he taught me how to cherish the people in our lives.
A few weeks ago, when I received the news Leo had passed, I was initially regretful. I was ashamed I didn’t call or spend more time with him. Part of me thought back to my grandfather’s death, and how Leo enlightened me with what my grandfather’s stories could have given me, if only I had listened. I felt a twinge of pain then too. But, as I sat in the church and watched the American flag being folded and handed off to Leo’s children, the sadness and regret washed away with pride. I was proud of all that Leo had accomplished throughout his 92-year-long life. Most importantly, I was proud and honored to call him a friend.
Leo is responsible for making my time in Minot special. He made my very first feature article immeasurably better than what it was without him. He made my life better.
Americans like Leo, who have seen and survived things we can’t even fathom ... live to share their stories with us. We call them ... the Greatest Generation!
Leo taught me why.
By U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Apryl Hall
Provided through DVIDS
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