Every November 11 is Veterans Day in America. Dedicated to remembering the thousands of people who have devoted parts of themselves and their lives to the protection and betterment of the United States, Veterans Day means something a little different to everyone who has served the U.S. military.
To celebrate Veterans Day, our staff interviewed three veterans within our Older Adult Program: Karl Kleeman, Gary Lothe and Bobbi Brown. From an Air Force cook to a WWII veteran who just celebrated his 100th birthday and an Army vet who continues taking every education opportunity offered to him, the lives of these veterans are one in a million.
WHEN DID YOU ENLIST? HOW LONG DID YOU SERVE?
Karl: I was drafted for World War II in 1943. I was 19 and had been working as a printer at The Capital Times. I served for three years total. Got out at 22. I don’t remember thinking much when I was drafted, just that I wanted the war to be over so I could go home. I spent a year in the states for training, then went over to fight in Japan and the Philippines as a PFC tracker on air watch.
Bobbi: I served in the Air Force as a cook for 20 years, from 1980 to 2000, based in Madison and Minneapolis. I had been laid off from a packing plant in Jefferson, Wisconsin, and was really just looking for a job. I was actually planning on enlisting with a girlfriend, but she backed out at the last minute.
Gary: I was in the service for 21-and-a-half years — Army and National Guard. I enlisted in 1978. I tried to go into the Marine Corps or the Navy first, but I didn’t have enough education. I was a high school dropout when I enlisted, and the Army only required nine years of school, so I went into the Army. I was a Staff Sergeant SAFS and a Platoon Sergeant when I retired.
WHAT DID YOUR TIME IN THE SERVICE LOOK LIKE?
Bobbi: Well, I felt like a babysitter during basic training. I was 29, and everyone else was just out of high school. I think they made me squad leader because of my age. I told my TI I didn’t want to do it, but she was like “too bad, you’re doing it.” I was so terrified. I wanted to quit there and then and just go home. But I didn’t. I kept with it.
When I actually went into the Air Force, I told them that I wanted to be a cook, and if they didn’t let me then I wasn’t going to join. So, they let me become a cook! There were a lot of people who graduated with me, like the ones who ended up in active duty, who didn’t have a choice of where they were going or what their job was going to be. They just found out when they graduated.
“I learned institutional cooking, how to follow their recipes strictly. We had to cook all kinds of things, but I remember having to cook a lot of eggs. Eggs, eggs, eggs. We served a lot of breakfasts. They also had what they called MREs, which were “meals ready to eat.” I’d bring those home. My kids thought they were so cool.”
I would prepare meals for any number of people. Hundreds to thousands, even. On trips we would support the civil engineers. In Alaska, it was two of us cooking for 14 civil engineers while they rebuilt a church. In the Bahamas, we supported the engineers who were rebuilding after a hurricane.
Karl: We spent the first four months after training in Hawaii, from October 1944 to January 1945, defending Dulag Airstrip in the Philippines by shooting down enemy planes in four-gun position. A corporal rangefinder would put a laser ahead of the target so when it got there, he could hit it. We had a board (pictured below) where we kept track of the planes we shot down. Every unit had one. We were using 40 mm shells — those are big shells. They’re about eight cans long. There was battery B, C and D, and A was our headquarters battery with supplies, but for the most part we were 15 men all by ourselves.
“I was technically processed for discharge on Nov. 27, 1945. I should have been home for Christmas — I missed three Christmases while I was over there — but we didn’t get home until January of ’46. We were just twiddling our thumbs, waiting to go home.”
Gary: I did a lot of different things in the military, so I spent a lot of time training and learning new things. I was in active duty at Fort Ord, California, for a year-and-a-half, and from there I went over to Kitzingen, Germany, for nine months. From Germany, I reenlisted. Then I went to Italy. Vicenza, Italy, was our headquarters. I worked at a nuclear site for about two-and-a-half years, then I went to Fort Campbell, Kentucky for a year and a half for Air Assault School. I didn’t care for Fort Campbell too much. We had to jump out of helicopters and stuff.
As soon as I got out of active duty, I joined the reserves because I wanted to continue my service. I first went into a control group because they didn’t have a home for me yet. When they did have a home for me, they sent me to be an electrician, then they sent me to carpenter school to be a carpenter— you could get promoted easier being a carpenter. At that point I was a sergeant, so I went to a drill sergeant unit. I didn’t want to be a drill sergeant, but I was there for five years anyway. Then they sent me to NPC school. I had four different MOS’s (Military Operational Specialties): a chemical specialist, carpenter, electrician and infantry.
They wanted to get me to an observer control unit, which is all E-7s and above, so they sent me to observer control school. Then I thought I had my 20 years, which is how long you have to serve to get a pension, but I was four days short, so I joined the National Guard. But because I changed branches, I had to serve the whole year just to credit for the four days.
WHAT HAS LIFE BEEN LIKE AFTER LEAVING THE MILITARY?
Karl: I went back to the newspaper as an apprentice. The war interrupted my learning the trade, so I learned how to make the type out of hot lead for the paper and I put ads together and put pages together. On Fridays, I would make up the society pages: weddings, birthdays, things like that. I got married and had four children: two boys and two girls.
Bobbi: After my 20 years I retired from the service, and I’m now fully retired. A benefit of enlisting was that they helped pay for my education, even before I retired. I went to UW-Stevens Point for food management while I was enlisted, which they covered. I don’t keep in contact with anyone I served with or see anybody, really — it’s been over 20 years. It would be kind of wonderful to see somebody, though, since I think about them all the time.
Gary: After I got out, I was homeless for a while. I slept under a bridge, I slept in a homeless shelter, I slept in a tent twice. I slept in a camper for a year. But I was also trying to do things to better myself. I was going to classes and job trainings: pharmacy tech training, medical records clerk, medical insurance. Through Madison College I got an IT degree, so I’m pretty well rounded with Microsoft, too.
“I graduated from Madison College at 61, so four years ago, and I’m going to UW right now with the Odyssey Project. I’m taking an English and writing class. They pay for your books, they pay for your food, they pay for everything. I’m working on a short-term degree, and then I’ll go for my bachelor’s. Maybe I’ll get a master’s. I don’t know.”
I’m writing an autobiography called "The Rollercoaster Ride." I had to take a class in written communications for my degree and the instructor let me do an autobiography instead of the assignments. I’ve been writing it ever since. I’ve got 190 pages, but I’m still working on it. I’m going to add pictures too. I also write poems, stuff about music. I wrote a poem that went viral at HUD VASH (Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing). I shared it with them, and they really liked it, they thought it was really touching. They’re gonna post it in their newsletter.
I’ve also done stuff with the Urban League. I did their Customer Service Academy. I did the IQ Academy and I got to do an internship. I also took a sewing class at the East Madison Community Center. I learned how to sew in the Army, they taught us so we could sew our own buttons and stuff, but the class taught us how to use a sewing machine. Now I’ve got a sewing machine and a case for it and I can make my own stuff.
WHAT DID BEING IN THE MILITARY TEACH YOU? WHAT DO YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT BEING A VETERAN?
Karl: When I was drafted, I just wanted the war to be over so I could go home. I grew up fast because of my time in the war. As a veteran, we’re called to fight the war. I never understood why others looked down on the vets from Korea or Vietnam. They were called just like I was, just for a different war. Being in the service is hard work, and while I was there, I just wanted to keep going so it would be over soon.
Bobbi: Being in the service taught me the discipline I didn’t have on my own. I’m a spontaneous person — I don’t have a set time I wake up every day, or a set schedule of things to do. I like to do things on a whim. There’s no room for that in the military.
I don’t think anyone should frown upon being a veteran or poopoo it, or act like it’s not a big deal because it is. I mean, it takes some stamina to be able to keep going in it.
Gary: Being in the military taught me how to take care of myself. I didn’t have a mom or a dad to take care of me. When I got out, I moved back in with my parents, but then my dad passed away, and my brother and I got into it, so a judge ordered me to leave the house. That’s when I started being homeless.
While I was in the military, I went through a depression. It’s lonely, you know, being out in the field and not seeing anybody for a while. That’s why I started going to school and bettering myself. I was a high school dropout when I went in, but I’ve got a lot of schooling under my belt now. That’s got a lot to do with me enlisting.
HOW DO YOU CELEBRATE VETERANS DAY? ARE YOU INVOLVED WITH OTHER VETERAN ACTIVITIES?
Karl: I joined the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) in 1948, and that’s where I’ve spent a lot of time helping out veterans. I liked helping out with the fish fries they used to put on a lot. My wife and I also volunteer. We’ve volunteered at the VA Hospital for 23 years. She would answer the phone, and we would both make the rounds and take the patients where they needed to go. Especially the Korea and Vietnam veterans in wheelchairs. On Veterans Day, my family likes going to the parade, and I’ve been in the parade that goes down State Street a bunch of times. I’d wear my uniform and everything.
Bobbi: I don’t have a traditional way of celebrating Veterans Day. I’ll sometimes go somewhere with my friends for a free meal, but there aren’t a whole lot of benefits for veterans. I do get help on my medications from TRICARE, that’s one benefit.
Gary: Well, for one thing, I haven’t had my teeth for six years. I get my teeth right before Veterans Day, so this year I can go to Texas Roadhouse and have dinner and eat all the good stuff I haven’t been able to eat for six years!
Veterans Day to me now is like a holiday. Ever since Applebee’s started giving free meals, then Roadhouse, Hooters I think does it, and Red Robin did it a few times. There’s a lot more places doing free meals now, which is great because I get to go meet vets I don’t know, or I get to see some vets that I used to be comrades with, that I served with in my reserve unit. A lot of them still go to the meals.
Bobbi asked not to be photographed for this project.
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