This month, as our country celebrates its 228th year of independence, many of us will give just passing thought to what the Fourth of July holiday really means. Sure, we might attend a parade, fly a flag or light some fireworks, but in many cases it’s not much more than a good excuse for a barbecue and a cold one.
But there are some neighborhood residents for whom freedom has a very real meaning, because they’ve risked their lives to keep it. They are our military veterans, and these are their stories.
When Ed Laska was a 17-year-old in Brooklyn, he lived and breathed baseball. He was invited to play on a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and it was a dream come true.
But the year was 1941. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Laska’s dreams changed to fighting for his country.
He joined the Marine Corps in 1942, shipping out in November of that year. His first combat experience at the British North Solomon Islands above Guadalcanal.
“We took two islands there and protected them from being taken over,” he says.
He returned to be stationed at Pearl Harbor for a time, before heading out for more fighting.
“We made our big trip across the ocean, to the Central Pacific, where we hit the Marshall Islands Feb. 17, 1944,” he says.
The capture of those islands, under Japanese control since World War I, put the U.S. in Japanese territory for the first time and offered bases for reconnaissance and combat staging.
Laska doesn’t offer details of battle.
“I’ll just say it was tough, and I’m glad to be alive,” he says. “A lot of our company did not come back.”
He served on the islands a few months, until his company was sent back to Hawaii.
“Then they told us the good news that we had enough, and sent us back to Treasure Island, just below San Francisco,” he says. “When our ship came on home under the Golden Gate Bridge, everyone screamed and yelled. Oh God, we were elated, just crazy with happiness.”
But when he returned home to Brooklyn, Laska was not the same young man who had left two years before. He was suffering from what’s now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, something he is still affected by today.
“Back then, they just called it nervousness. All the bombing and land mines we encountered, the blasting and shelling all around, affected my nervous system and hearing, and gave me a concussion,” he says.
Honorably discharged in December 1945, he moved to Texas in 1948 to attend SMU on the GI bill. He graduated with a degree in criminology and sociology with hopes of working for the FBI, but was unable to due to his nervous condition. He took a job with an insurance company, making it his career for more than 40 years until he retired in 1995.
Now 81, Laska is a lifelong Democrat who says his patriotism has never waned.
“I fly the flag every day of the year, and have for the past 25 years,” he says.
“I’ve worn a Marine Corps pin in my lapel when I wear a suit for the last 30 or 35 years, but until all this started with Iraq, no one hardly paid attention to it or ever asked what it was.”
He still doesn’t care to talk much about his wartime experiences.
“When you start talking about the war, I prefer to let whatever I did speak for itself,” he says.
Still, he’s glad that more people are showing an interest in veterans.
“Maybe people can learn from it,” he says. “Maybe they have an idea of what I went through, or can see something in my eyes. A lot of people have come up and thanked me, and that’s fine.
“I appreciate that. I really do.”
In 1957, Ray Huebner was a new high school graduate with two goals: He wanted to go to college, and he wanted to see the world. So he registered with the Marine Corps, getting a paid trip to college in return for four years of service.
He graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, then married his college sweetheart, Glee. In 1962, he was named a second lieutenant.
Initially stationed at Camp Pendleton in Virginia, Huebner liked the military life so well he decided to make it a career. The couple had their first child at the base, before he was sent to Japan, and from there to Vietnam in 1965.
Though not involved in combat fighting, he performed a crucial job nonetheless, as a communications officer.
“Everything sent from headquarters was encrypted, so if messages were intercepted they couldn’t be understood,” he says. “I managed the cryptographic settings used to make the two ends synchronize. It was just a tedious, monotonous job, but it was necessary,” he says.
After a year, Huebner returned to the States and attended graduate school, where he earned a master’s in electronics.
He worked for the National Security Agency for a time, but given the state of things abroad, he felt it was the wrong place for him.
“I wrangled my way out of that place and went back to Vietnam,” he says. “I felt I was needed there, and I just wanted to do my part in what the Marine Corps was doing.”
Huebner returned to Vietnam for a second one-year tour, once again “in the rear with the gear,” in communications.
He was there until his unit was pulled out of Vietnam in 1971. On his way back to the States, he realized the strength of the anti-war sentiment.
“When I came home after the second time, the people who organized the transportation back said, ‘Don’t wear your uniform. Don’t risk it.’”
Things were also difficult at home.
“My daughter was 6 about that time, and it was a problem because she had thought I had abandoned her,” he says with emotion. “I had to re-enter her life. It took quite a while to regain her trust.”
After Vietnam, Huebner began work in a joint communications program, instrumental in designing and building a new generation of communication equipment for the military service. The system, a precursor to the Internet, is still in use today.
After 20 years of service, he retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1982 and moved to Dallas to begin his civilian career in communications. He eventually took an assignment that would lead him back overseas, but this time with wife Glee.
When Desert Storm began, he was living in Saudi Arabia.
“There were many Vietnam vets there, and we said, ‘We’re not gonna let these guys feel like we did. We’re gonna do something to help them out.’”
The families invited soldiers to their homes to shower, wash their clothes and call their families.
“They would bring busloads of people in from the desert, and we’d all take four to six of them in,” he says.
After nine years overseas, Huebner retired for the second time. He and Glee returned to Dallas in 1995, with their dreams of seeing the world realized and just in time to become grandparents.
“We saw some amazing stuff,” he says. “But we were ready to come home.”
The military became part of Douglas Skaggs’ life when he was just 11 years old, after his family moved near an army base in Lawton, Okla.
“Back then, they’d let the kids walk around the air base. My brother and I really admired the guys out there, and we loved the planes. So we both decided we wanted to be pilots.”
The planes made a big impression, but no more than the kindness of the men there.
“Nobody ever got fat from having too much food back then, so we’d hang around the mess hall after lunch was served, hoping they’d fix us a plate,” he says. “The mess sergeant there would act real tough, but he’d always tell them to fix us some food, and make sure we got enough.”
Skaggs enlisted in the Army in 1940, at 18 years old. He went through flight training and was assigned to the Army Air Corps after graduating. At 20, he was made a second lieutenant and given his wings. His dream of becoming a pilot had come true.
He trained on and instructed others in a variety of airplanes, from single engine fighter planes to four-engine bombers, until October 1943, when he flew to England to participate in the 448th bomb group.
There he and other instructors made up a model crew, the best of the best, then lead crew when their combat missions began that December.
Skaggs flew 30 bombing missions over the next six months. But the mission on April 22, 1944, almost proved his last. His crew and others were returning from a bomb run in Germany that day, and they had company.
“We called up the British and American fighter planes to tell them German fighter planes were following us,” he says. “When we got to the base, we ID’d as friendly, and circled around to make sure they saw it. But when we came back in from the ocean to land, we had anti-aircraft fire shooting at us.”
Their plane was hit, and one engine was knocked out. But they fared better than the two planes with them, which were shot down.
“We saw them go down,” he says. “They all died.”
As they moved back out over the water to avoid the fire, Skaggs’ crew had reason to believe they might suffer the same fate.
“We were over water, struggling to stay aflight, with our plane on fire,” he says. “We got back to base and tried to make an emergency landing.”
That’s when they were attacked by enemy fighter planes. “One guy was shot in the leg, we lost communication from front to back, and three guys bailed out.”
He was forced to pull the plane away from the base again, despite the fact that it was failing.
“Our engine was quitting, and we prepared for a crash landing. Our engineer got enough gas through to give me enough power to get back to base, and we made a semi-crash landing, and we all survived.”
Skaggs finished his first tour a few months later, going home to marry Geraldine, his wife of more than 60 years.
He wasn’t home long, though. “We just barely said ‘I do,’ and he was gone,” Geraldine says.
He returned for a second tour as a major and squadron operations officer, flying as commander of 15 more combat missions until the war’s end.
He went into reserve duty, but was called back to command a communications unit near the Aleutian Islands during the Korean War.
After 30 years of service, he retired in 1973 as a colonel, moving to Dallas a few years later. For the past 60 years he has stayed in regular contact with the men of his bomb crew. Though only four of them are left, they still have regular reunions.
“When we veterans get together, we know each other pretty well,” he says. “They’re just fine guys. Really fine guys.”
Jay Patterson was 25 when he joined the Navy in 1968. A recent law school graduate and a new father, he could have stayed at home and taken a well-paying job. But he and his wife, Jan, had decided before he began law school that he would join the military upon graduation.
“Our idealism led us to the decision,” he says. “We decided it was something we needed to do, this service for our country.”
So Patterson enlisted for a three-year service, which began with Officer Candidate School in Rhode Island. From there he traveled across the country to report to the USS Point Defiance, and amphibious ship docked off the coast of California, to serve as a lieutenant and lead a deck division of 45 sailors.
He trained there for several months, before shipping out to join other amphibious vessels off the coast of Vietnam and bring Marines home from the fighting.
His separation from his wife and child proved a difficult time for the family. Though they didn’t realize it, Jan was pregnant with their second child when he left, and the pregnancy wasn’t an easy one.
“I remember standing in a phone booth in the Philippines, and she was in tears on the verge of losing our baby,” he says.
Though Patterson was not in combat during his military service, he saw its effects on the troops he transported.
“We had Marines we steamed around with for a while who hadn’t seen any action yet, and there were moral problems, racial problems, fights and a lot of hatefulness,” he says.
“When we picked up the guys who had been fighting, there wasn’t any of that. Those Marines were happy to be there. They’d seen their comrades die, and you mature in a hurry when you go through the situations they’d gone through. You learn a lot of stuff about what matters.”
Patterson was discharged from the Navy in 1970. He returned to Dallas, happy to be back with his wife and kids, but surprised to find that family and friends showed almost no interest in the war.
“There was an amazing lack of curiosity of where we had been, what we had done when we were there,” he says. “It was like we had never been gone.”
Once home, he began his legal career and became very active in Republican politics. For the past 10 years, he has served as a civil district judge, a position for which he says his military experience proves useful.
“My experience in the military taught me a lot about leadership and how people react to things,” he says. “Part of what you learn is that a group of people on a team can experience what one person alone cannot.”