As reported by Reuters
On Feb. 24, 1968, Don Skinner was in charge of maintaining bombing radars in Vietnam when his unit came under attack. The Air Force sergeant was critically wounded, spending three months in a Saigon hospital, before being air-lifted to the States where he says he spent nine more months at a hospital “being put back together.”
Three of his comrades were killed during that assault, and overall, 19 members from Skinner’s unit lost their lives during the war.
But the memories of those 19 men – and hundreds of others spanning different wars – live on, thanks to Skinner’s efforts. Today, the 83-year-old sits in front of a computer at his Aiken, S.C. home working on remembrance profiles for fallen soldiers. The retired veteran is one of more than 200 volunteers who work around the clock building the Roll of Honor on TogetherWeServed.com, an online war memorial that claims 1.5 million members and has more than 100,000 pages honoring fallen service members.
For Skinner, who has personally completed more than 850 profiles, it’s about putting stories to names, bringing those killed in action from “obscurity back to reality.”
“They are now honored and remembered,” Skinner said. “These people are no longer forgotten or lost in the mist of history.”
Erasing that mist is not always an easy task. For example, there’s a dearth of information on many Korean War and World War II veterans, whose numbers are dwindling. Volunteers rely heavily on battle history archives, gravesite information and public records to glean information, but they often must track down surviving family members to fill in the holes.
One of those working to fill the gaps is Carl “Krusty” Elliott. During the Vietnam War, the Army staff sergeant worked at Walter Reed hospital, where he says the wounded soldiers “left a lasting impression” on him.
The 67-year-old Elliott, who has built more than 2,000 online memorials from his Rochester, New Hampshire home, says it was especially gratifying to complete the profile of 1st Lt. Verne Kelley, a 10-year Army veteran who was killed in action in Vietnam in 1969. Kelley grew up not far from Elliott’s hometown and was friends with his older brothers.
Diane Short, a Navy veteran who oversees operations and management of the website’s memorial teams, says the site hopes to complete unfinished profiles by year’s end but the task is daunting. The online memorial includes almost 48,000 fallen soldiers in the Army alone and TWS has completed about 65 percent of those remembrance profiles.
The veterans who add photos, medals and remembrances to the online memorials are giving an emotional lift to families of the fallen. Just ask Debra Booth, whose 23-year-old son Marine Lt. Joshua Booth was killed in Iraq in 2006 — just five weeks after deployment. She hadn’t seen any photos of her son in Iraq until she stumbled upon three images of Josh posted on Together We Served. “What an amazing surprise that day,” said Booth, who added that she has since corresponded with Josh’s captain, hopes to connect with more men who served with her son.
Josh left behind a daughter Grace, who is now 8 years old. Debra Booth says Grace recently asked Santa Claus to bring her pictures of her daddy. Thanks to the images posted to Together We Served that wish was granted. “It’s an amazing gift,” Booth said of the online memorial.
Building the remembrance profiles is a healing process for the volunteer veterans, according to Short.
“A lot of these guys are dealing with PTSD,” Short said. “It is their way of getting into their head and dealing with their memories and putting pen to paper honoring those who they lost.”
Denny Eister, a 69-year old Vietnam War veteran who lives in Destin, Florida, says he suffers from PTSD and repressed his war memories for nearly four decades. One day, his kids uncovered some medals in his desk drawer and he says it triggered a renewed interest to track down his fellow soldiers. Eister, who works part time as an insurance agent, has since built nearly 1,000 remembrance profiles.
“You develop a bond that’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced combat in military,” Eister said. “It’s an honor to do it for the guys who didn’t come home.” Eister said through his work he was able to track down his company commander at the time, Walter Dillard, who retired as a colonel and now lives in Virginia. “We still communicate to this day,” he said.
Indeed, Together We Served has become a coveted social network for veterans. Barbara (Bobbe) Stuvengen served in the Navy in World War II as a WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). A few years ago, when the 89-year-old Wisconsin resident lost her husband (also a sailor) to Alzheimer’s disease, she credits the website for “preserving my sanity during some very stressful times.”
“It’s just kind of a way to keep in touch with the outside world,” said Stuvengen, who communicates regularly with other members. “It means a lot to me to have TWS to go into. … I begin to feel like they’re my family.”
As for Skinner, 65 years after enlisting in the Air Force, he is still devoting his time to serving his country. The author of several military books, he continues digging into databases, scouring archives and phoning families to piece together the lives of fallen service members. More than four decades after making it through that deadly assault in Vietnam, Skinner is battling cancer – but his doctors have declared him healthy and he remains focused on his work.
“I guess I’m a survivor in more ways than one,” he says.