July 19, 2014

Videos by Iredell County veterans tell the stories of hometown heroes

Tommy Rieman speaks calmly and matter-of-factly about his life’s extreme highs and lows since he deployed to Iraq as a 21-year-old in 2003.

Tommy Rieman speaks calmly and matter-of-factly about his life’s extreme highs and lows since he deployed to Iraq as a 21-year-old in 2003.

Often it has been more powerful than the Mooresville resident could bear:

The shielding of a fellow soldier during an ambush and firefight in which he sustained two bullet wounds and 11 pieces of shrapnel in his body.

His Purple Heart and Silver Star, for which he was honored during President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address and led to his becoming the inspiration for an action figure toy and video game.

The post-traumatic stress disorder, fueled by self-medication and suicidal issues, that cost him his home and relationships.

His daily battle for sobriety and re-acclimation into society as his community supports him.

Rieman tells some of his story as one of five subjects in “Hometown Heroes.” The weekly series of five short videos, launched by the Mooresville Convention & Visitors Bureau earlier this month and primarily filmed at Richard’s Coffee Shop, features interviews that honor locally based veterans who served in conflicts ranging from World War II to Iraq.

“I came back a broken man,” says the 33-year-old Rieman, who was a sergeant during his two tours in Iraq (2003-04, 2010). “The triumph and tribulations of going through life and coming back from combat have not been easy for me.

“It’s multiple things – combat stress, for one driving along in a vehicle and at any moment, the vehicle could explode and you could die. I was shot several times. I was blown up. Three of those times I was damaged – not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. I didn’t understand what was happening to me.

“Men were not taught to communicate very well about how we’re feeling. You put it all aside and be a tough guy. The common saying is, “suck it up and drive on.’”

Upon returning home, Rieman found that substance abuse prolonged and worsened the pain. Within the past year, he entered a rehab facility “and started learning how to take care of myself where I was able to break free from that. Fortunately, I had this community to help me with that. Gracie’s Hope is an organization that has given me that freedom back.”

Gracie’s Hope – a Huntersville-based organization that has gotten national recognition for its drug-free approach in helping veterans after combat – was part of the impetus for the videos. This year’s Patriot Classic Lake Norman Golf Tournament, to be held Oct. 12-13 at Trump National Golf Club in Mooresville, benefits Gracie’s Hope and its plans to build a hyperbaric treatment center for veterans. The Convention & Visitors Bureau is partnering with the tournament.

This year’s Oct. 12-13 event at Trump National Golf Club in Mooresville benefits Gracie’s Hope and its plans to build a hyperbaric treatment center for veterans.

“The hard truth is that 22 veterans take their own lives every day,” says Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Director Leah Mitcham. “We hope that by honoring some of our local veterans in this way, that our community will even further embrace the true sacrifice, dedication and bravery of these heroes and understand that veterans need our support more than ever.”

The bureau chose filming at Richard’s Coffee Shop, a frequent gathering place for veterans and families due to the presence of its Welcome Home Veterans Living Military Museum. World War II veteran James Wesson Sr. and his son, Jim, were regular visitors to the coffee shop.

The elder Wesson died two years ago at age 91. In the series’ first video, Jim talks about his father’s Navy service, from 1939 to 45, which began at age 19.

Wesson got on a 1920 Clemson-class destroyer mine sweeper – the DD-249 and later the DMS-13, better known as the USS Hopkins. “He spent the entire war on that ship,” his son says in the video. Wesson was running maneuvers at the time Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941; overall, his tenure included some 11 different engagements, including Guadalcanal, Okinawa and Iwo Jima.

One of James Wesson’s highlights came on Sept. 2, 1945. His ship was in Tokyo Bay when Japan formally surrendered – with some 1,200 Army, Navy and Marine Corps planes flying in formation over the USS Missouri to reinforce the country’s military might.

“He said the sky was just black with airplanes,” his son says. “He said it was just one of the most awesome sights he’s ever seen.”

Jim Wesson urges others to start the tradition at the coffee shop that he and his father shared.

“Even if you’re not a veteran, come in – especially the kids,” he says. “I think one of the things we lack today is enough history, especially about our greatest generation in World War II. I think we don’t have enough history being taught to those kids. But they can come in here and get a wonderful history lesson and meet the people that are part of that history.”

Courtney Wolfrom, marketing and communications manager for the Convention & Visitors Bureau, adds that Mooresville is beginning a four-part webinar series later this month that’s designed to help local leaders identify best practices for veteran reintegration programs. The program is called “Returning Veterans: Resources and Best Practices for Local Leaders.”

“I think together, we as a community can really create a complete destination of support, healing and welcome for veterans,” she says.

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