On Memorial Day, John Hedley’s father always flew an American flag, took the family to a patriotic parade in downtown Rochester, N.Y., and urged them to remember veterans.
But he never spoke about what he did as an Army officer in World War II.
Even when Hedley graduated from West Point and was awarded the Silver Star for valor in Vietnam, his father didn’t open up about his own war experiences.
That’s one reason why Hedley, 68, is involved in oral history projects to collect veterans’ stories and make them accessible.
“I want to establish legacies for families,” said Hedley, who is president of the nonprofit Welcome Home Veterans Living Military Museum at Richard’s Coffee Shop in Mooresville. “I want to get the stories down so people will know and remember when we’re gone.”
Welcome Home Veterans provides outreach programs for veterans and educational programs for schoolchildren. It started as a veteran-friendly coffee shop run by the late Richard Warren, a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. Two years ago, the group moved to 165 N. Main St. in Mooresville, directly across from Warren’s original Pat’s Gourmet Coffee Shop.
Retiring as a lieutenant colonel after a 24-year Army career, Hedley worked for a defense contractor. He said about 200 veterans from the region are involved with the nonprofit, and he wants to collect their military experiences for an archive at the museum.
One member of the nonprofit, Jerry Jacobus of Huntersville, has already interviewed about 100 veterans and is publishing the stories in a book coming out in July.
“I wanted to get the stories on paper to have something for their grandchildren and also document what they did,” said Jacobus, 78, who is a Marine Corps veteran. “It’s just neat. They did their thing and didn’t think it was a big deal. I learned a lot.”
Connecting to a national program
Hedley wants to continue gathering stories. This summer, he hopes to get training in interviewing techniques at the Library of Congress, where he’s sharing memories of the Vietnam War with the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center.
The project was created by Congress in 2000. Through a nationwide volunteer effort, it has amassed 91,000 collections, with 100 more coming in every week, according to project director Bob Patrick.
About 13,000 of the oral histories and other materials have been digitized, and “anyone can come to the Library of Congress to use them,” Patrick said. “People are using them. It’s just a great thing to connect the generations.”
The project collects firsthand accounts of U.S. veterans from World War I to the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.
In recent years, the project has focused on Vietnam veterans.
“It’s very important they tell their stories,” said Patrick, a retired Army colonel. “They’re not getting any younger. And the whole story hasn’t been told.”
‘Faces go by’
For Hedley, Memorial Day is a tough time.
“A whole lot of faces go by,” he said.
Among those are the faces of his West Point roommate, Don Colglazier, and 19 other West Point classmates killed in Vietnam, as well as the faces of nine 4th Infantry soldiers killed Nov. 6, 1969, during an all-night attack in the Central Highlands.
In that battle, Hedley led the elite Fox Force reconnaissance platoon. Each soldier wore a red scarf and had a $10,000 bounty placed on him by the North Vietnamese Army. That night in the highlands, Hedley exposed himself to enemy fire to protect his men, according to the Silver Star citation that called the actions “courageous.”
On Memorial Day, Hedley remembers battles fought and fallen soldiers. But he also thinks about the soldiers who are still around.
He realizes it’s unlikely he’ll ever find out anything about his father’s war experiences because military records were destroyed by a fire in St. Louis years ago.
That makes him even more determined to preserve other stories, especially those from Vietnam, before they’re lost.
“I don’t have any war stories from my dad, and I’ll never fill that void,” Hedley said. “After all these years, I’m still upset about how the kids who fought in Vietnam were reviled when they came home. I want to set the record straight.”