Duery Felton and Rick Weidman
Every day since it officially opened in November 1982, visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. have left tributes to those whose names are engraved on The Wall: medals, dog tags, clothing, and other objects they associate with friends, loved ones, and fellow service members.
The Memorial Wall is under the supervision of the National Park Service, and when Duery Felton learned that park rangers were collecting and storing this huge collection of items, he became a volunteer in order to see them for himself. Eventually he was offered a full-time position as the first curator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection, a job he held for 28 years before retiring in 2014.
Duery, who served in Vietnam, came to StoryCorps with his friend and fellow war veteran, Rick Weidman (pictured together above), to discuss what drew him to the wall, and to talk about his service during the Vietnam War.
Click here to view a gallery of some of the more than 400,000 items left by visitors to The Wall.
Originally aired November 12, 2016, on NPR’s Weekend Edition.
Hartmut Lau and Barbara Lau
After graduating from West Point in 1967, Hartmut Lau was given a choice to serve his active duty in either the United States or Europe. He volunteered to go to Vietnam.
With the U.S. escalating its involvement in the Vietnam War, and the draft still two years away, Hartmut joined the Army’s 9th Infantry Division during one of the war’s worst years of combat. In 1968, American casualties peaked at 16,899, and 29 of Hartmut’s 589 fellow cadets from the class of ’67 were killed.
In 1991, after 24 years of service, Hartmut retired at the rank of colonel having been awarded the Silver Star Medal, the Bronze Star Medal, and the Purple Heart. Five years later, he met his wife, Barbara.
Over the course of their 20-year marriage, he has shared with her stories about his time at West Point, but Hartmut had never before spoken to Barbara about his service during the Vietnam War—until they came to StoryCorps.
Originally aired November 11, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Lou Olivera and Joe Serna
In 2013, Green Beret Sergeant Joe Serna retired from the Army after more than 18 years of service that included three tours of duty in Afghanistan and numerous awards including two Purple Hearts. Returning to North Carolina to be with his wife and children, he found adjusting to civilian life difficult.
In 2014, following a DWI arrest, Joe’s case was assigned to the Cumberland County Veterans Treatment Court. After a probation violation, District Court Judge Lou Olivera (above left), an Army veteran who served during the Gulf War, sentenced Joe to a night in jail.
Joe was with three other soldiers in Afghanistan in 2008 when their armored truck flipped over and landed in a river. It quickly filled with water and Joe was the only survivor. Knowing Joe’s history and how difficult it would be for him to spend an evening confined, Judge Olivera decided to spend the night with Joe in his jail cell.
At StoryCorps, they reflect upon the night they spent together, the difficult memories that being sentenced brought back, and the relationship they have formed since.
Originally aired October 14, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Above photo courtesy of Joe Serna.
Jenna Henderson and Laurie Laychak
On June 17, 2007, Army Sgt. First Class Chris Henderson and two other soldiers were killed when an improvised explosive device detonated near their Humvee in Afghanistan.
Chris enlisted in the Army during his senior year of high school, and soon after graduating in June 1991; he went off to boot camp. He spent more than 15 years in the military serving tours of duty in Bosnia and Kosovo, and was still in uniform when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred.
A month later, in October 2001, Operation Enduring Freedom began and in January 2007, Chris was deployed to the Kandahar Province in Afghanistan where he was part of a team working to help train Afghan National Army forces. Chris was killed on Father’s Day of that year; he was 35 years old. He is survived by his wife, Jenna Henderson, and his 8-year-old daughter, Kayley.
Jenna and Chris met while in their 20s and had been married for seven years before he was killed. The family lived together in Fort Lewis, Washington, where Chris was based. He was a loving husband and a devoted father, and Jenna says, a total goofball. She remembers coming home to find Chris and 18-month-old Kayley in their bathing suits playing in mud puddles or riding on Chris’ motorcycle. The two were inseparable.
Now 18, Kayley bears a striking resemblance to her father. “When she’s upset, her little eyebrow twitches,” says Jenna, “And when she smiles, she’s kind of got that little crooked smile he had.” She has even participated in Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) at her high school and is hoping to soon get her motorcycle license.
Jenna still misses Chris terribly and holds on to one of the last letters she received from him. “In it he said, how much he loved me and how he was glad that he had married me, and that he wouldn’t have changed that for the world.”
Jenna came to StoryCorps with Laurie Laychak (left), a mentor she met through the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) — an organization that offers compassionate care to those grieving the death of a loved one serving in the Armed Forces—to share memories of Chris.
Originally aired September 3, 2016, on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday.
Family photos of Chris, Jenna, and Kayley courtesy of Jenna Henderson.
Max Voelz and Mary Dague
Army Sgt. 1st Class Max Voelz and his wife, Staff Sgt. Kim Voelz, worked in Explosive Ordnance Disposal—the Army’s elite bomb squad. Both Max and Kim were sent to Iraq in 2003. One night, Max called in the location of an explosive and Kim was sent to disarm it. She did not survive the mission. In 2011, Max came to StoryCorps to remember her. Click here to listen to his remembrance.
At one of Max’s lowest points, he turned to another bomb tech, Sgt. Mary Dague, who lost both of her arms during an IED disposal in Iraq (pictured at left in one of her favorite t-shirts). Max and Mary (pictured together above) came to StoryCorps to talk about coping with loss.
Web Extra: After Max’s story was broadcast, NPR listener Leslie Holot (pictured at left) reached out to him on Facebook. The two fell in love and got engaged. They came to StoryCorps in 2014 to talk about their relationship.
Originally aired November 7, 2014, on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Ernesto Rodriguez and Sebastian Rodriguez
Puerto Rico native First Lieutenant Ernesto Rodriguez enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2002 as an opportunity to serve, see the world, and better his English. In 2004, the year after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he was married, and in January 2005, his first child, Sebastian, was born. Later that year he was deployed to Iraq.
While he loved life in the military with the security and stability it offered, and welcomed the opportunity to put his training to use, being at war limited his contact with his family and he missed them immensely. Having seen other service members watch their children “grow up in pictures,” he was determined not to let that happen to him.
In 2009, resolved not to spend any more time away from his family, which now included his daughter, Elsasofia, Ernesto retired from the Marines.
Returning home, he found the life he arrived to was not the same one he had left behind before going off to war. His children barely knew him, steady employment was difficult to find, he and his wife separated, and for a period of time he was homelessness. His life was in a tailspin.
Ernesto came to StoryCorps with Sebastian (pictured together above), 11, to talk for the first time about what it was like for him to go off to war, and his attempts to keep his family together after his return.
Originally aired June 17, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Donna Engeman and Nicole McKenna
In 1981, when she was 20 years old, Donna Engeman enlisted in the United States Army. Prior to joining, Donna had not only never set foot outside of the country, but she had never even left the state of Minnesota.
While stationed in Germany, she met Long Island native John Engeman. Living in the barracks, they had what soldiers often refer to as a “barracks romance”—a fling that does not last long. But Donna and Sergeant Engeman quickly fell in love and in February 1983 they married.
Months after the wedding, Donna, pregnant with their first child, a boy, and believing herself to be a better spouse than soldier, left the Army and returned to the states to raise Patrick.
John remained in the military and in January 2006, as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he was deployed to Baghdad. On May 14, 2006, an improvised explosive device detonated near his Humvee during a combat operation killing him and a fellow soldier.
Chief Warrant Officer John W. Engeman is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Donna and John’s son, Patrick, is currently an Army major who has been deployed overseas four times.
Donna came to StoryCorps with their daughter, Nicole McKenna (pictured together at left), to share stories of John as a young husband and father.
Originally aired May 26, 2016, on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday.
Top photo of Donna Engeman courtesy of Slade Walters/IMCOM, U.S. Army.
Photo of Donna and John at a 2002 Military Ball courtesy of Donna Engeman.
Jim Stockdale and Jasey Schnaars
Many Americans remember Vice Admiral James Stockdale as H. Ross Perot’s running mate during the 1992 presidential campaign. Standing on stage between Dan Quayle and Al Gore during the vice-presidential debate, Admiral Stockdale opened by rhetorically asking: “Who am I? Why am I here?”
Those questions immediately became a sound bite and a punchline for late night comedians, and for millions of Americans, they defined a man they knew little about.
Adm. Stockdale’s legacy goes far beyond a few sentences spoken at a debate. Over the course of his Naval career, he earned 26 combat awards including two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Distinguished Service Medals, two Purple Hearts, four Silver Stars, and in 1976 President Gerald Ford presented him with our nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor.
In 1947, Adm. Stockdale graduated from the United States Naval Academy, and in 1965, then-Captain Stockdale’s plane was shot down over North Vietnam. He was then captured and brought to the Hoa Lo Prison, infamously referred to as the Hanoi Hilton.
Being the highest-ranking Naval officer held prisoner of war, he became a leader among the other POWs establishing a code of conduct to help keep them from being used by the North Vietnamese for propaganda purposes. Adm. Stockdale, who was forced to wear leg irons for two years while held captive, at one point slashed his own face with a razor to keep from being put on camera, and according to his Medal of Honor citation, he once used glass from a broken window to slit his own wrist in order to “convince his captors of his willingness to give up his life rather than capitulate.”
During his seven and a half years as a POW, Adm. Stockdale was able to send letters to his wife, Sybil, in California. Quickly, she figured out his correspondences contained coded messages and she coordinated with the CIA to continue their communications while her husband was held captive.
Sybil herself was a force to be reckoned with. She was a vocal advocate for the families of POWs and soldiers missing in action at a time when the United States government followed a “keep quiet” policy, asking relatives of POWs not to call attention to their family members (this policy was primarily for public relations purposes). And as a response, she helped found the National League of Families of American Prisoners Missing in Southeast Asia, a nonprofit organization that is still active today as The National League of POW/MIA Families.
Below: Listen to an excerpt from a February 1973 conversation between James and Sybil, speaking to each other on the phone for the first time in seven and a half years. Recorded by their son Stanford, James was at Clark Air Base in the Philippines at the time and would days later be reunited with his family.
In 1979, Sybil was awarded the U.S. Navy Department’s Distinguished Public Service Award, presented to civilians for specific courageous or heroic acts. The citation that accompanied the honor noted, “Her actions and indomitable spirit in the face of many adversities contributed immeasurably to the successful safe return of American prisoners, gave hope, solace and support to their families in a time of need and reflected the finest traditions of the Naval service and of the United States of America.”
In July 2005, Adm. Stockdale died at the age of 81, and in October 2015, Sybil died at the age of 90. They are buried alongside each other at the United States Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, Maryland.
Their son, Jim, who was a teenager at the time of his father’s capture, came to StoryCorps with his friend, Jasey Schnaars (pictured at left), to talk about his mother’s strength as they waited for his father’s return home.
Originally aired May 27, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Top: Jim Stockdale and his brothers, Taylor (right) and Stanford (left), greet their father, Navy Captian James Stockdale, at Miramar Naval Air Station on February 15, 1973, as he returns home after after spending seven and a half years as a POW. (Photo courtesy of Jim Stockdale.)
Middle: Vice Admiral James Stockdale with his wife, Sybil. (Photo courtesy of Jim Stockdale.)
Roy Wilkins and Keith Melick
Roy was seriously injured in the blast, but was pulled from his Humvee and survived.
Ten years later, Roy was at a VA medical center gym when he heard a familiar voice—one he recognized from the day of the explosion. The voice belonged to Keith, the medic who’d pulled him from the wreckage. That chance reunion marked the beginning of a deep friendship.
At StoryCorps, Roy and Keith talk about their memories of both encounters.
Originally aired November 29, 2014, on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday.
Catherine Alaniz-Simonds and David Taylor
February marked 25 years since the end of the Gulf War.
Operation Desert Storm, the portion of the war focused on removing Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi military forces from neighboring Kuwait, began in January 1991.
One of the war’s final battles, waged just before a cease-fire was declared, was a United States-led attack on the Iraqi controlled Jalibah Airfield by the 24th Infantry Division. Army Captain David Taylor was one of the officers leading the troops, and he feared that the plan would result in American soldiers dying as a result of friendly fired. But he did not say anything, and unfortunately, he was right.
Army Specialist Andy Alaniz was a member of a unit not under the command of Capt. Taylor, his vehicle turned sharply during the fight and he ended up in the line of fire. Andy died in the crossfire, one of 35 soldiers killed by friendly fire during the Gulf War.
At the time of his death, Andy, 20, had been married less than a year, and is wife, Catherine Alaniz-Simonds, was six months pregnant. While Andy was in Iraq they would send each other letters and Polaroid photos almost daily. Catherine would give him detailed updates about her pregnancy, and Andy would send back photos scrawled with messages like “Take care of the baby,” and “I love you.”
Days after her baby shower, Catherine learned that on February 27, 1991, Andy had been killed.
Since his death, Catherine has sought out men from both Andy’s unit and the other units present at the airfield to help her better understand what happened to her husband that day. And since that time, now retired Colonel David Taylor has lived with the guilt of believing that he could have done something to prevent the death of his fellow solider.
Earlier this year, at a reunion of the 24th Infantry Division at Fort Stewart in Hinesville, Georgia, Catherine and David (pictured in the player above) met face-to-face for the first time. They sat down for StoryCorps to talk about the day Andy died and how it has impacted both of their lives.
Catherine and Andy’s daughter, Andee (pictured above with her mother and a photo of her father), will turn 25 later this year. In 1992, the photographer David Turnley won a World Press Photo of the Year prize for his image of the grief shown by Sergeant Ken Kozakiewicz who was being evacuated to a hospital by helicopter upon learning that the body bag accompanying him and fellow wounded soldier Corporal Michael Tsangarakis contained the remains of his friend, Andy Alaniz.
Click here to see that image.
Originally aired April 9, 2016, on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday.