How do you tell real war heroes from frauds? Listen for the silence

February 24, 2015

What is it about some successful men that they feel a need to be war heroes, too?

There is a long tradition of prominent men exaggerating their military service for no good reason. And there is an equally long tradition of journalists and veterans’ groups exposing them to public ridicule.

But it keeps on happening.

Robert McDonald, the secretary of veterans affairs, apologized this week after a TV news crew caught him telling a homeless man that he had served in special forces. McDonald graduated from West Point and Ranger school and served in the 82nd Airborne, but he wasn’t in special forces.

And then there are the TV stars who embellish their experiences as war correspondents.

This is a big deal because good journalism is about accuracy and the search for truth. Making up things destroys credibility, and without credibility, a journalist has nothing.

Brian Williams. AP Photo

Brian Williams. AP Photo

NBC News anchor Brian Williams was suspended earlier this month after he apologized for repeatedly telling how a helicopter in which he was riding while covering the Iraq War was hit by enemy fire. Actually, it was another helicopter in Williams’ group that was hit.

Williams said he “made a mistake in recalling” that key detail. NBC executives have reacted appropriately by suspending their top-rated anchor for six months. Many journalists think he should never return to that job.

Even more interesting is the case of Bill O’Reilly, the bombastic Fox News talk show host and commentator.

Mother Jones magazine last week called out O’Reilly for repeatedly stretching the truth about his experiences as a CBS correspondent in Argentina during the 1982 Falklands War.

In his 2001 book “The No Spin Zone,” and on his show, O’Reilly has claimed to have “survived a combat situation” and reported from “active war zones.” In reality, O’Reilly and other non-British journalists were kept hundreds of miles away from the fighting in the Falkland Islands during Great Britain’s 74-day war with Argentina.

What O’Reilly was referring to was a demonstration he covered in Buenos Aires that turned violent. He claims to have seen Argentine troops shoot and kill civilians. And on his show in 2013, he told a guest, “My photographer got run down and then hit his head and was bleeding from the ear on the concrete.”

Bill O'Reilly. AP Photo

Bill O’Reilly. AP Photo

O’Reilly’s former CBS colleagues have refuted his claims. They don’t recall any of their photographers being injured, and they note that there were no reports of civilian deaths that day.

Rather than apologize, O’Reilly has doubled-down on his claims and hurled insults at his critics and former colleagues. He called David Corn, the Mother Jones bureau chief in Washington who co-authored the story, “a liar”, “a despicable guttersnipe” and “a left-wing assassin.”

O’Reilly told a New York Times reporter who interviewed him about the controversy this week that if he didn’t like the story, “I am coming after you with everything I have. You can take it as a threat.”

What O’Reilly has not done is offer any evidence to support his claims or refute the Mother Jones story. But rather than suspend him, Fox News executives so far have given O’Reilly their full support.

O’Reilly and Fox News may not be concerned about their journalistic credibility, since they don’t really have any beyond their loyal base of conservative viewers.

But they may be underestimating the military combat veterans in their audience who will be offended by O’Reilly’s manufactured heroism.

That’s because combat veterans and war correspondents who have performed bravely under fire don’t go around bragging about it. Even when asked, many would rather not discuss it.

I have seen this many, many times. But the one I will always remember involved the most famous hero of World War I, Sgt. Alvin York of Tennessee.

I interviewed York’s widow, Gracie, four months before she died in 1984. She told me her husband never wanted to talk about the deeds that earned him the Medal of Honor.

“He never would, not even to me or the kids,” she said. “I guess he didn’t want to think about how bad it was in the war.”

Recording World War II memories before it is too late

November 9, 2013

Elams0001Willie J. Elam, 94, talks with his son, Mark, at the Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore, where he lives. Mark Elam interviewed his father over eight years about his combat experiences in the South Pacific during World War II, which earned him a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.  Photos by Tom Eblen 


Mark Elam was sitting in Turfland Mall a decade ago, waiting for his wife to finish shopping, when he struck up a conversation with an old man who mentioned he was a World War II veteran. Elam said his father fought in the war, too.

“Then he asked what outfit my Dad was in,” Elam said. “I had to admit I didn’t know. I was embarrassed.”

That encounter led Elam to start asking his father about the war. Soon he was bringing a tape recorder and a list of questions each Sunday when he visited his father, who is now 94 and lives at the Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore.

“He was apprehensive at first, but then he opened up,” Elam said. “The more I asked, the more he told me, and it just grew and grew.”

Elams0004After eight years of interviews, plus a lot of research on his own, Elam published a spiral-bound book in June for his sister, Marta Dorton, and their families. He titled the book after the motto of his father’s unit: To the Last Man.

“It was a fun project,” he said. “I spent a lot of time with him, and it brought us closer together.”

Elam, 57, said the project made him realize how important it is to preserve stories, especially those of the rapidly disappearing generation of veterans who fought World War II.

As a graphic artist and printer, Elam knew how to scan old photographs and assemble a book. But he didn’t consider himself a writer, so he told his father’s story chronologically, mixing his own prose with sections of questions and answers from their interviews.

The result is quite readable — and fascinating. It provides a detailed and vivid account of what combat and everyday life was like for American soldiers who fought the Japanese in the South Pacific.

Willie Junior Elam was a farm boy from Morgan County when he enlisted in the Army four months before Pearl Harbor. He was a private first class in the 43rd Division, 103rd Infantry, Company K, serving through 1946. Two brothers also fought in the war.

Elam was a field radio operator who saw a lot of combat, earning the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. The second time he was wounded, in an artillery strike that killed several officers around him, he was so badly hurt that doctors nicknamed him “the miracle kid.”

Elams0005“There was a lot of stuff he can’t talk about and won’t talk about,” Elam said. “He still has nightmares about some of it 70 years later. I didn’t want to push him too much.”

As Elam discovered, the most important part of such a project is simply asking questions and recording answers. When it comes to preserving those stories in a book or other form, a lot of helpful resources are available.

One is a book, A Veterans Legacy: Field Kit Journal ($15. It was written three years ago by Jay McChord, a former Lexington Urban County Council member, and offers a step-by-step guide to compiling a service history.

The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning next year will offer several classes that could be helpful. Writing Your Family Stories is a daylong seminar March 8. Another class, Life Writing: Generating and Revising Autobiographical Prose, will meet Tuesday evenings from April 15 to May 20.

The Carnegie Center also offers individual writing mentors and a nonfiction writing group that meets Tuesdays at lunch from Jan. 9 to March 25. For more information, call (859) 254-4157 ext. 21 or go to

Dorton said she is glad her brother preserved their father’s wartime memories.

“Dad told stories when we were growing up, but I had forgotten a lot of them,” she said. “I think it was good for Dad psychologically to get some of that out.”

Recording family history is important, she said, and not just for veterans. As we spoke by phone, she was driving to Menifee County to visit a 104-year-old aunt, Rella Mullins, who until recently could tell stories about living on a farm during the Great Depression and working in a factory during World War II.

“It’s amazing what all she witnessed,” said Dorton, who gave her aunt a journal several years ago and has written down some of her stories.

“It’s an easy thing to do,” Elam said of preserving family members’ memories. “But after they’re gone, it’s too late.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


Book project hopes to capture veterans’ love stories

June 20, 2012


Jay McChord's drawing of a photo that inspired his proposed book, which will collect the love stories of military veterans.

Jennifer Bryant was 16 when her grandmother died in 1991. As she helped her grandfather choose family photographs for the funeral visitation, she noticed a stack of small pictures and letters on the top of his dresser.

Kenneth and Dale Johnson were married for 46 years and raised three children in Webster County, where he worked as an underground coal miner.

The small stack of correspondence represented much of their first two years of marriage, which they spent apart. He was an Army machine-gunner during World War II and fought on the front lines in Europe, including the Battle of the Bulge.

One picture caught Bryant’s eye. It showed her grandparents on their wedding day, kissing along a roadside. Two days later, he left for the Army.

“He told me to just put that picture back in the stack; we weren’t going to use any of those at the funeral home and I didn’t need to mess with them,” she said. “Then he turned around and walked out of the room, and I put that picture in the back pocket of my jeans.”

A couple of days after Dale Johnson’s funeral, her husband burned all of those letters and pictures. The war and separation had been painful for them, he told Bryant later, “and those memories don’t need to be in this house anymore.”

Johnson never knew that Bryant saved the one photo. For most of the two decades since then, it has stood framed in a curio cabinet that had belonged to her grandmother.

When Bryant showed the picture to her friend Jay McChord last year and told him the story behind it, he got an idea: why not collect veterans’ love stories and pictures from across the generations and publish them in an inspirational book?

McChord and Bryant have launched a fund-raising campaign at to publish A Veteran’s Legacy … in Love. Their goal is to raise $30,013 by July 19 on the crowd-funding Web site to create an online platform for people to submit their stories and photos, and to produce the book. Unless they reach the goal, they won’t receive any of the Kickstarter pledges.

“I think this project and book can preserve some powerful stories and offer encouragement for what sacrifice and commitment look like,” McChord said. He envisions the book as a combination of inspirational love stories and a place where veterans may record their love stories for posterity.

Bryant and McChord already have the art for their book’s cover: McChord, a former University of Kentucky art major, made a drawing of the picture of Bryant’s grandparents kissing on their wedding day.

Much of McChord’s artistic work in recent years has focused on veterans. Most pieces are drawings of snapshots that soldiers took of themselves and friends while in service.

McChord, who is stepping down this year after eight years as the 9th District representative on Lexington’s Urban County Council, wasn’t in the military, and his family doesn’t have a strong military tradition.

But McChord said he has always loved military history, and he is inspired by veterans’ service and stories, especially those who fought in World War II. He just returned from a “Victory in Europe” trip organized by the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which included tours of sites in London, Paris and the beaches of Normandy. An 86-year-old American who fought in Normandy was their guide there.

In 2010, McChord published a book, A Veteran’s Legacy: Field Kit Journal (Gracie Mae Publications, $15). Illustrated with his drawings, the book helps veterans record the stories of their military service based on questions McChord developed from the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.

McChord sees these book projects as a way to honor those who served, preserve their stories so future generations can learn from them and offer a measure of healing, he said.

Bryant said it would be a shame if more stories of love, commitment and persistence disappeared in time, as her grandparents’ story did.

“Our children are not going to know the true stories of these veterans unless we tell them,” she said. “These people are here now, and we need to capture these stories.”

Couple who served keep WWII memories alive

May 28, 2012


Time is accomplishing what the combined forces of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan could never do: wipe out the generation of Americans who won World War II.

Nearly 16 million U.S. veterans came home after the war ended in 1945. Only about 1.5 million of them are still alive, including about 3,100 in Kentucky. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that these men and women in their 80s and 90s are passing at the rate of 740 a day.

So when I got a call recently from Donald and Mary Jane Roser of Lexington, who both served in the military during World War II and have been married for 65 years, I figured they would have interesting stories to tell.

Donald Roser, 93, was in the First Marine Division in the South Pacific, including nearly five months in the Guadalcanal campaign. “I always say I must be going to heaven because I’ve already been to hell,” he said.

Mary Jane Roser, 91, was one of 350,000 women accepted into military service during the war. She joined a new Navy unit called the WAVES, which stood for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.

They grew up only 10 miles apart; he on a family farm that is now part of Masterson Station Park, she in Midway. They graduated from high school in 1937; he at Bryan Station, she as valedictorian of the 14-member class of the old Midway High School.

After two years at the University of Kentucky and an unsuccessful attempt to become an Army aviator, Donald Roser followed his uncle into the Marine Corps two months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. After basic training, he went to communications school to learn how to set up battlefield radio and telephone networks.

After sailing to New Zealand and training near the island of Fiji, Roser became part of the invasion force on Guadalcanal on Aug. 7, 1942. He spent the next four months setting up phone lines around the island, making him an easy target for Japanese snipers.

“I never got wounded, even though I got shot at a lot,” he said. “They bombed us every day and shelled us every night for months, and we didn’t get much sleep and didn’t have any food to amount to anything for a while. It was a nasty place.”

Roser kept a daily diary during his first six weeks on Guadalcanal. “Expecting Japs to try to make night landing haven’t slept much for a week need a bath and haven’t had clothes changed for a week pretty cruddy,” he wrote Sept. 2, 1942.

“Received mail from home,” he wrote two days later. “Got word of Mom’s death from cancer on July 12. Don’t seem to care anymore. Hope and pray I can snap out of it soon.”

Among later entries that month: “Some of us are cracking up. General MacArthur better hurry and give us some relief. … You just wait for the shells to come. … Still raining. Our fox holes are full of water. … No retreat for us — hell no. Everyone is resigned to the fate that seems to await us. God help us all.”

While Roser was in the Pacific, Mary Jane Diamond was teaching school near Dayton, Ohio. In 1943, she decided to enlist in the WAVES. “I just got this bug to go into the service,” she said. “My children wrote in their little school paper, ‘The war will soon be over; Miss Diamond has joined the WAVES!”

After learning to march in basic training, she spent two years processing mail in San Francisco and New York City, where she once saw President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a parade. “It was an adventure,” she said.

She worked mostly with Victory Mail. Families wrote letters to their servicemen on special forms that were microfilmed, then enlarged and reprinted once they reached their destination, eliminating shipping bulk and costs. “That was V-mail,” she said. “Now we have email.”

After a few more months of battle on other South Pacific islands, Roser returned home to find his pre-war girlfriend had married an Army officer. Roser and Diamond were fixed up by their aunts, who belonged to the same Scott County homemaker’s club. The aunts arranged a dinner for them on New Year’s Day 1946.

“That really took, right off,” Roser said. The couple were married Oct. 12 that year.

He had a career farming and working in a hardware store and harness shops. She taught in public schools in Fayette County, mostly at Jesse Clark Middle. They raised four children and have been members of Hunter Presbyterian Church since the early 1950s.

The Rosers were never active in veterans’ organizations. But around Memorial Day each year, he will read through his copy of The Old Breed, the First Marine Division’s official history of World War II.

Showing me the book last week, Roser slowly turned the last 16 pages, labeled “In Memoriam”. Each page had four columns of names. “We lost a lot of good men,” he said softly.

“I think sometimes about what I’ve been through; well, I just never give up. I’m not that type of guy,” he said. “But now it’s getting that way — when you get to be 93 years old, you have to give up sometime.”

“He’s a tough ol’ dude,” Mary Jane Roser said. “But I took good care of him.”

Her husband smiled. “Put a Marine and a Navy together,” he said, “and you can’t beat ’em.”


Veterans’ sacrifice often continues after wars end

May 28, 2011

The men and women we honor on Memorial Day weekend are not all lost on the battlefield.

Veterans who survive combat too often have been denied care for their damaged bodies and minds. In every war, including the American Revolution, caring for wounded veterans has been a cost this nation’s leaders have been reluctant to pay.

That is the story told in a new book by Lexington authors Robert J. Topmiller and T. Kerby Neill, Binding Their Wounds, America’s Assault on Its Veterans (Paradigm Publishers, $22.95).

Topmiller served as a Navy hospital corpsman with the Marines at Khe Sanh, one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. He wrote about his horrific experience in a previous book, Red Clay on My Boots. Topmiller earned a doctorate in history from the University of Kentucky and taught at Eastern Kentucky University.

Binding Their Wounds grew out of Topmiller’s combat experience, his study of the Vietnam War and veterans’ issues, his many trips to Vietnam to help orphans with birth defects likely caused by Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the U.S. military, and his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq.

But friends think this was a book too painful for Topmiller to finish. In August 2008, he left home with the manuscript, checked into a motel and killed himself. Neill asked Topmiller’s widow and publisher for permission to finish the book.

“I had lunch with Bob about 10 days before he died, and he was talking about the book,” Neill said. “I’m a clinical psychologist and I had no inkling at our lunch that he was in the kind of distress he was in.”

Neill and Topmiller, who was 59 when he died, became friends through their work as peace activists and a shared passion for veterans’ issues. Neill, a Navy veteran and retired psychologist, had worked several years in the Veterans Administration.

Neill finished this book with help from many people, including Peter Berres, a Vietnam veteran and scholar who wrote a chapter about Agent Orange. George Herring, a University of Kentucky historian and leading expert on the Vietnam War, wrote the forward.

After telling Topmiller’s compelling story, this well-written book chronicles the history of broken promises to and mistreatment of America’s veterans. In every war, veterans have had to lobby, protest and even fight to get promised compensation and care from politicians who wanted to save money or “move on.” Minority and women veterans fared even worse than white men.

The book explores the government’s attempts to deny care to veterans exposed to radiation, Agent Orange and other chemical hazards. And it details how the Bush administration was unprepared to care for so many injured soldiers in the early years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Today’s combat veterans return home with physical wounds that would have killed previous generations on the battlefield. But perhaps the biggest challenges now, as always, are the unseen wounds.

This psychological damage has gone by different names throughout history: “soldier’s heart” in the Civil War, “shell shock” in World War I, “battle fatigue” in World War II and Korea. Now referred to as “post-traumatic stress,” these injuries have been a huge issue for Vietnam veterans and those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last week grilled VA officials about rampant suicide, which has surpassed combat as the leading cause of death among active military personnel. Veterans now account for about 20 percent of the nation’s 30,000 suicides each year.

Neill said significant progress has been made in care for veterans in recent years, from electronic medical records and post-traumatic stress treatment to training and pay for family caregivers. But he said more must be done, despite projections that veterans’ care will push the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan past $3 trillion.

Toward the end of his life, Topmiller seemed more distressed by what was then happening in Iraq than what had happened in Vietnam. “He had hoped we had learned the lesson of wars of choice,” Neill said.

As with any medical issue, the cheapest and most effective treatment is prevention.

That is why Neill focused the book’s last chapter on how to prevent future wars.

War has become too easy, Neill said. Powerful economic interests encourage military adventurism, and an all-volunteer military distances most affluent Americans from the tragic consequences.

“The size of our military and what we invest in it is perhaps one of the reasons we use it so carelessly,” he said.

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

Monday is more than just another holiday

May 27, 2011

Monday is Memorial Day, when we honor the men and women who have fought and died in military service to our country. The Bluegrass Military Affairs Coalition has compiled a list of Memorial Day observances this weekend in Kentucky. Click here to find one to attend.

Not all of the military men and women we lose die on the battlefield. In my Sunday column, I will talk with a Kentucky author whose new book explores how poorly this country has treated its veterans — from Congress’ foot-dragging on promised pay and benefits to Continental Army soldiers to poor treatment given to some veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book is a painful reminder that we must do better by those from whom we ask so much.