Army and Marine Corps veteran Joel Montes can remember the clicking sound his shoes made as he ascended the front stairs of a house to tell the parents inside that their son wasn’t coming back from Afghanistan.
Navy veteran Richard Castro recalls tripping over a compatriot’s severed leg while rushing to tend to the man after he was felled by a landmine in Vietnam.
Army veteran Al Harvard can recite the joke some of his fellow servicemen made him tell through a mouthful of cigarettes while hanging from a rafter: “Charles Dickens goes into a bar and orders a martini and the bartender says, ‘Olive or twist?’”
Seven Southern California military veterans took the stage together Tuesday night to share their memories and experiences in front of a rapt audience of about 150 people during the Voices — Veterans Storytelling Project outside the Heroes Hall veterans museum at the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa.
The project was meant to give veterans a creative outlet to talk about their time in the service and how their experiences have shaped them.
Over six weeks, the participants met at Heroes Hall to learn more about one another and develop Tuesday’s event.
In many cases, they said, those gatherings were the first time they felt comfortable to share some of their experiences.
Army veteran Bruce Olav Solheim said “it’s liberating and absolutely essential for all of us to tell our own story.”
“America does not go to war; individual Americans go to war,” he said. “Our veteran voices need to be heard.”
Navy veteran Donald Pageler was aboard the USS Liberty when the ship was attacked by the Israeli military in 1967.
Israel has maintained the attack was an error caused by mistaken identity and has apologized and paid restitution. However, some people, including some Liberty crew members, believe the attack intentionally targeted the American ship.
Pageler said he was sworn to secrecy about the experience for years.
He has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and dangerously high blood pressure. The latter, he said, was greatly relieved when he was finally able to summon the strength to talk about the ordeal.
“Recovery is a process, not an event, and that process can’t take place if your experiences are hidden,” said Pageler, who lives in Westminster. “When I denied my life’s experiences, I had no identity. You don’t get over your military experience, but you can learn to live with it.”
Though some fond memories of military life do stand out, the speakers Tuesday said they still bear physical, emotional and psychological burdens of their service.
“War isn’t just devastation on the front lines, it destroys us at home too,” said Montes, a Huntington Beach resident. “Like a virus creeping into our bodies unannounced, it dismantles families, extinguishes hope and handicaps dreams.”
Air Force veteran Frank Barry said he was diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer in 2011, an affliction he blames on his exposure to Agent Orange, the notorious defoliant used during the Vietnam War.
“It’s far worse to see children afflicted with maladies we suspect come from our exposure — to think that we are the cause of their hurt and pain,” the Huntington Beach resident said. “Those invisible wounds of war are now visible.”
To Castro, Vietnam evokes memories of gunfire, sweltering heat and “the smell of burnt bodies.”
“My soul carries so many memories of those months, and not one day goes by without thinking about the insanity and the misery of that war,” the Anaheim Hills resident said.
Harvard, of Coto de Caza, said he doesn’t talk about his combat experiences in Vietnam — he still struggles with the traumatic memories.
Still, he said he valued participating in the storytelling project and hearing the stories of the other servicemen.
“I was particularly enchanted by the inflections and the passions that surfaced as the weeks went by,” he said.
Because of the continuing struggle with the horrors of war and the challenge of readapting to civilian life, it’s vital for people to continue supporting veterans after their service has ended, said Army vet Eric Kuyper of Costa Mesa.
“Now, the mission of the people of the United States is to help the veterans in whatever individual way each one needs,” he said. “For some, it’s as simple as a cup of coffee or a pat on the back. But whatever a veteran needs, find that problem and fill it.”
The Voices — Veterans Storytelling Project was presented by Arts Orange County, a nonprofit arts council, in collaboration with Heroes Hall, Anaheim-based Chance Theater and Veterans First, a nonprofit service provider.