Local Michigan veterans share their stories

Wednesday, November 11, 2015 - 10:33pm

Veterans from Michigan who began their service during World War II addressed an audience of several hundred at Hill Auditorium on Wednesday as part of the Service Above Self initiative, which honored veterans observing Veterans Day.

The event was organized by the Ann Arbor Rotary Club in conjunction with Veteran and Military Services to raise funds for families of veterans and for the creation of a Fisher House in Ann Arbor, the first in Michigan. The Fisher House Foundation provides free housing for families of qualifying veterans while they are receiving medical treatment.

Co-organizer Karen Kerry, a former president of Ann Arbor Rotary Club, said publicity for the event alone raised more than $45,000 for the Fisher House, even before the evening’s donations.

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D–Dearborn) said her and Lieut. Gov. Brian Calley (R–Mich.) had empathy for the project due to their shared experiences with loved ones in the hospital.

Dingell’s husband, former Rep. John Dingell (D–Mich.), is an Army veteran and was recently hospitalized.

“When John was in intensive care, I was sitting in the waiting room with family members who had no money for a hotel, they had little kids nobody was taking care of,” Dingell said. “It made me realize we all owe a great deal to the people who serve us but the families are there and supporting them, too.”

Dingell said though there is usually a five-year waiting list for the construction of a Fisher House, the program may be able to expedite the process through a fund-matching plan.

Calley said his family stayed at the Ronald McDonald House when his daughter had open-heart surgery at University Hospital. Calley, who lives more than an hour away, said housing was a critical part of his family’s need at that time.

“If we want to do right by our veterans, we have to do right by their families,” Calley said. “This type of project is something a lot of people can connect to, and say, ‘Of course we need to do this for our veteran’s families.’ ”

Dingell said the land for the Fisher House is already designated, and the project will commence as soon as the funds are gathered.

“I don’t like the word bipartisan because it implies politics,” Dingell said. “Brian and I are friends, the governor and I are friends, and we want to do what’s right for our community.”

Veterans in attendance Wednesday shared stories of their wartime experiences, which ranged from humorous to horrific, describing the realities of war and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Greta Krapohl, who served from 1986 to 2006, said one of the greatest things about the military is that you never know what you’ll be doing next.

During her service, Krapohl said she was asked to compete for a medical assignment at the White House. The position was a spot in an elite medical unit composed of Army, Navy and Air Force personnel providing care to the the first family and the vice president during the Clinton administration.

A few years into her service, Krapohl said President Bill Clinton needed a routine blood sample. She was shaking as she prepared to take the sample when the president cracked a joke.

“He said, ‘Greta, do you know how many people would want to be in your position right now with a needle getting ready to take my blood?’ ” Kraphol recounted. “That made me smile.”

Kraphol said much of the time was spent in emergency contingency planning, and while the president was at the White House her team would be on call.

One day while Krapohl was on duty, she said the words "Eagle Down" came on over the radio, signifying the president had been hurt.

“Eagle Down, the president was injured,” she said. “All I knew was that our contingency plans at an instant went into play. It was the fastest I’ve ever gotten into a car in my life.”

The president’s tendon was injured after he tripped walking up stairs.

Korean War veteran Robert Fletcher was captured and held prisoner for nearly three years during his service in the Korean War. Fletcher enlisted May 1, 1950, and had about a month of basic training before he was assigned to serve with the Buffalo Soldiers in Japan.

He was there for about two weeks before his unit was sent to Korea. They arrived at a river dividing China from North Korea on Nov. 1, and temperatures were 40 degrees below freezing.

Fletcher said that of his original group of 250 men, only 39 made it back to the United States.

“I’m more fortunate than others because my wife keeps an eye on me,” Fletcher said. “When I get sick she makes sure to take me to the VA hospital.”

Fletcher rejected post-traumatic stress counseling when it was offered. He said he fought the urge to kill himself, and his wife talked him into seeking treatment. Fletcher said he has been seeing his VA psychiatrist for 15 years.

“The one thing I’ve learned is freedom is not free,” Fletcher said. “Somebody has got to pay for it, either here or over there.”

World War II veteran Art Holst was an infantry captain in WWII and is 94 years old. His story becoming friends with a German soldier, who prevented him from being turned over to a prison camp.

He said the theme of the story was that in war, soldiers are their brother’s keepers.

“In the face of all that carnage and horror, there is a sense of humor,” Holst said. “I’ve seen what evil can do.”

While Lawrence Dolph, a Vietnam War veteran, told a more humorous story about an elaborate prank played on his unit during the Vietnam War, other stories explored the darker side of war.

University alum Brendan Lejeune, who served as a Marine in Iraq, told a story about the death of a fellow marine by sniper.

“It was just another day in Iraq when he was shot and killed,” Lejeune said. “We all knew he had been shot in the head, the wall was to high for him to be shot anywhere else.”

Lejeune said they held his friend’s skull together to keep as much brain matter inside as possible, and administered CPR the entire way to the medical facility.  The friend died later in surgery.

“They said even if he had been shot on the operating table he would have died,” Lejeune said. “We wept.”

Lejeune said when they brought his body out, he touched the body bag and turned and put his face into the chest of his old team leader.

“I used to joke that we were like traveling bag people,” he said. “We lived out of bags, we slept in bags, we ate out of bags and we were put in bags when we were killed. After that, it was no longer funny. He was 21. It was just another day in Iraq.”