Veterans proud to tell their stories

Nov 11, 2011 Issues: Veterans

Dennis Calhoun served proudly during the Vietnam War, but he says he's no hero.

From 1968-71, he was a weapons mechanic for the U.S. Air Force stationed at bases in Thailand and Okinawa, Japan.

"I'm no hero, and I didn't do any fighting or take any gunfire or anything like that," the 63-year-old from Sterling Heights said. "But I sure worked hard when I was over there."

He said he doesn't have any big plans for Veterans Day, but he got an early start, of sorts, on the holiday. Calhoun recently joined 78,000 U.S. war veterans who have made the stories about their military experiences part of the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project.

The project, started in 2000, is a collection of verbal histories. The program aims to preserve the personal accounts of American war veterans and make them available to the public to help future generations better understand the realities of war.

On Oct. 20, Calhoun was interviewed about his Vietnam experiences at the offices of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program of Macomb in Warren.

"I was the only guy on the base who repaired a particular bomb rack on airplanes," said Calhoun, who rose to the rank of E-5 in the Air Force. "I supported every bombing run over Vietnam from my base in Thailand. I spent 12 hours every day working on them."

The group, known as RSVP of Macomb, is a nonprofit that provides volunteers 55 or older to Macomb County hospitals, schools, community and senior centers, child care centers and other nonprofits. RSVP of Macomb has been compiling veterans' stories since 2003.

Volunteers videotape veterans' interviews, transcribe them and send them to the Library of Congress to be included in the project. They also give a copy of the interview's video to each subject.

The group has compiled about 100 soldier stories, said Sue Siemaszko, director of volunteer services for the nonprofit.

Donald "Digger" Odell is among some of the more famous Metro Detroit veterans interviewed by the RSVP volunteers.

Odell, 77, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel of Harrison Township, was shot down in 1967 over North Vietnam in his F-105 Thunderchief. The enemy held him prisoner at the infamous Hanoi Hilton for 51/2 years. He was frequently tortured, and a guard slammed a rifle butt into him, breaking his neck, he said.

"I think the (work RSVP is doing for veterans) is commendable," said Odell, who served in the Air Force for 23 years. "I think it's much appreciated by veterans. I was proud to do it."

RSVP relies on about 10 volunteers and donations of equipment, Siemaszko said.

The group recently received some big-name help. The office of U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, is helping with the project. Levin's staff is helping mail submissions to the Library of Congress and to the interviewed subjects, a spokesman said.

"The men and women who have served in our nation's armed forces have done so much to help preserve the liberties and freedoms we all enjoy, and their stories deserve to be shared and remembered," Levin said in a statement.

"RSVP has done a remarkable job conducting interviews and we're proud to partner with them to ensure our veterans' stories become part of history."

Calhoun said he wanted his story included in the project for his family.

"I wanted to tell my story and have it there for my twin sons, my stepson and my grandchildren," he said. "It was a nice feeling to be able to do that."