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Ahead Of Memorial Day, Veterans Remember



In a few minutes, the latest on the reports of a massacre in Syria that may have left at least 30 children dead. But first to our cover story today.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK, veterans. Veterans, look here for just a few minutes.

RAZ: This week, a group of veterans dressed in bright orange shirts gathered in front of the World War II Memorial on the National Mall right here in Washington, D.C. Some of them were in wheelchairs, others with walkers, but all of them determined to make the journey here to pay tribute to their comrades who never made it home from Europe or the Pacific. This weekend has become known as the official kickoff of the summer, but it's also about something much, much greater.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We give thanks for those who sacrificed everything so that we could be free. And we commit ourselves to upholding the ideals for which so many patriots have fought and died.

RAZ: That's President Obama from his weekly video address. We begin our program today with the voices of those who served and the memories they keep of those left behind.

At the World War II monument, we came across 93-year-old Jill Knappenberger from Champaign, Illinois. She was a Red Cross volunteer who spent part of the war in a field hospital in Bastogne in southeastern Belgium.

JILL KNAPPENBERGER: I volunteered in '43 to serve with the American Red Cross. We served coffee and doughnuts and cigarettes and candy and chewing gum to the combat troops. But what we did was requested by Eisenhower. He said there's nothing worse than a homesick G.I., which is true. And we were primarily morale builders, and we loved doing what we did, and they loved having us. So it was very satisfying.

I was 26. And in December, I learned my twin brother, Jack, had arrived from England and moved up into Germany. And I was at Bastogne 50 miles away and had two days leave and got up to see him. He was with the 106th Infantry Division and was assigned to that division on Saturday, December 16th. And when we got there, we knew we were in trouble because the Germans were all around us.

So did what we could, helped in the hospital there - American evac hospital. And I learned that my beloved twin brother was killed first day in the Battle of the Bulge. And he's now buried in Luxembourg, a beautiful American cemetery. Devastating, of course. But when you're living in a warzone, in combat, then you expect - I mean, you don't expect it, but you adjust to it. And, of course, we were young and had more resistance and vitality than we do now. But it was devastating.

RAZ: That's Jill Knappenberger remembering her twin brother, Jack, who was killed at the Siege of Bastogne in December 1944. He was 26 years old.

War often illuminates remarkable, even unlikely, stories. Among the most remarkable of the Vietnam War was a stroke of luck or perhaps a bureaucratic mix-up that put two brothers in the same combat unit.

They were from Nebraska. One was 19 years old. His name is Tom Hagel. He's now a law professor at the University of Dayton. His big brother was 21. He's Chuck Hagel, and he'd go on to serve as a U.S. senator from Nebraska.

CHUCK HAGEL: We both put in transfers to be with each other, knowing full well that would never happen. Well, it did happen. It was amazing. So for 10 and half months, Tom and I served literally side by side in Vietnam. And I think my mother was somewhat assured recognizing the risk. But if you're going to be over there, if you're going to go do this, I'd just assumed have you both together and take care of each other.

RAZ: Between them, Tom and Chuck Hagel left Vietnam with five Purple Hearts. In two separate incidents, both men were badly wounded. Tom saved Chuck's life the first time, and Chuck returned the favor a month later.

Tomorrow at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, both brothers who, despite deep political differences, are still very close, both will attend a ceremony marking 50 years since the start of that war. Chuck Hagel will introduce President Obama. Here now is who former Senator Hagel is thinking about this weekend.

HAGEL: On Memorial Day, I think of all the individuals that my brother and I served with in 1968 in Vietnam. That was the Tet Offensive. That was the year we sent back more than 16,000 young Americans dead. I think of Tony Palumbo who was killed from New York. He had, I think, a month to go before he rotated out. He was killed in May of 1968.

And I think of John Summers, a young 18-year-old kid from New Jersey who was killed during the first experience that my brother Tom and I had being wounded together. But I think of those special quiet heroes who served, who came back and never expected anything in return for their service, except maybe a little respect, which unfortunately an angry, divided America didn't give them.

But, you know, that was unfortunate - another unfortunate aspect of the Vietnam War. We all went over as individuals. We didn't go over in units. We were there, if we could last, exist, survive, for 12 months and then your tour of duty was up, except for the regular army people who then could be called back. But because it was a draftee war, essentially, you could get through it. Twelve months and you were out.

And when you came back, they separated you. You flew into Oakland, Travis Air Force Base. They gave you a new uniform, and they gave you travel money home. They gave you about a one-hour briefing on what your benefits are, thank you for your service, and go home, have a good life. That was partly why we had so many readjustment problems with Vietnam veterans returning. That was it.

And Tom and I still stay in touch with some of our buddies from those days. But quite frankly, we've had one individual who Tom and I served with and got to know again here in the United States, a wonderful man, wonderful wife, three children, committed suicide about four years ago. He just never could deal with it.

Two other friends of ours have had major in and out psychiatric ward issues at the VA. Never been able to deal with it. We've got other friends who were able to deal with it, have done very well in their lives. Tom and I have been lucky that we've been able to adjust and move on.

RAZ: That's former Nebraska senator and Vietnam War vet Chuck Hagel.

More than three million men and women have cycled in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and almost 6,500 troops have been killed in those wars. Even as U.S. forces begin to prepare for an eventual drawdown in 2014, Afghanistan continues to claim hundreds of casualties a month.

Butch Bracknell is a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps. He's done tours in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. And when we asked him who he'll be remembering this Memorial Day, he began by describing his late friend Maj. Mike Weston.

LT. COL. BUTCH BRACKNELL: He's the closest thing that you could find in a modern superman. Mike and I were both assigned as military prosecutors at Camp Pendleton, California. Mike and I spent several weeks, maybe a better portion of a few months working where we were with each other 60 or more hours a week. He was a, you know, almost a 4.0 grade point average guy from Stanford with degrees in computer science and economics.

Mike went from there to Harvard Law School. And while he - it's an interesting story. While he was on a break at Harvard Law School, he had gone out to California on a job interview. He was flying back with a bunch of Marine reserve guys, and he started talking to these guys and they started yukking it up and sharing stories. And then next thing you knew, Mike had decided, you know what, that sounds like a good idea. I'm going to do that.

So while all of his Harvard Law School peers were at the New York law firms and the Washington, D.C., law firms, you know, making big dollars for the summer, Mike went off to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, and became an enlisted Marine reservist. That was Mike's way.

He would not be told by the folks at Harvard that this is the expectation. Mike would define his own ideas of success. And he went and joined the Drug Enforcement Administration after his initial stint as an officer in the Marine Corps. And that's when he went to Richmond, Virginia, and sort of the mean streets of Richmond.

He was still in the Marine Reserves, and he was assigned to combat operations, and that's where Mike and I saw each other physically. The last time was around February of 2005. I was leading a deployment in Iraq and his unit was rotating in. And so we overlapped for about a week while we were there in Afghanistan.

And we hadn't seen each other in a couple of years, and it was just like the old days. We had such a great time together. We'd go and eat at the dining facility together. And I think we watched "Old School" a couple of times together, which was right up Mike's alley in terms of sense of humor.

And so we had to part company after that as I was rotating home back to my family and he was coming in for his initial tour of duty. So I think their deployment was probably seven or eight months. He came back from them, and he went back to work for the DEA.

You know, most of us would want to come back from a deployment like that where you're kind of getting shot at at a regular basis and you're always exposed to mortar fire or IEDs and things like that and you'd want to take a break and go back to something sort of regular.

Mike took his break and went back to the streets of Richmond trying to interdict drugs in Richmond and with some of society's - probably the worst actors. He did that until an opportunity arose within DEA for him to join a - basically a deployed special operations team and go do counter-narcotic work in Afghanistan.

Mike was, of course, one of the first guys to get his hand in the air to get in on that big adventure. So off he goes to Afghanistan and had been there just a few weeks when they were out on a night mission and they had done a raid and they were leaving the compound that they had just secured. And as he was leaving, something happened with the helicopter, and the helicopter didn't gain altitude and it wound up crashing back into the wall of the compound and everyone onboard the helicopter perished, not just Mike but other DEA agents and some military folks that were supporting that mission.

I felt sad for society because I knew that we had lost something great. He was the best among us. He really - everyone who knew him knew that whatever it was you were doing, Mike could do it better. And that it wasn't - there wasn't a hint of arrogance at it. It was just pure unbridled enthusiasm and curiosity and passion for life. That's what the world lost. That's what America lost with the loss of Mike Weston.

RAZ: That's Lt. Col. Butch Bracknell remembering his late friend Maj. Mike Weston who died on October 26, 2009 in western Afghanistan.


RAZ: And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.