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Several StoryCorps participants gathered to celebrate the Military Voices Initiative at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. earlier this month. From left to right: Gordon M. Bolar, Sergeant Papsy Lemus, Matt Colvin, Specialist Justin Cliburn and Specialist Jessica Pedraza. (StoryCorps)

Of Marines, Mothers and Men: Scott Simon On StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative

Dec 19, 2012

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Following the Military Voices launch event, NPR Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon hugs Gordon Bolar, General Manager of NPR Member Station WMUK in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In 2007, Bolar's son Matthew was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

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Each month, Weekend Edition Saturday celebrates stories of families of the 2.4 million men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 10 years. In partnership with StoryCorps, the American oral history project, the Military Voices Initiative amplifies their important voices and lets them know that we—as a nation—are listening.

At the launch event of the Military Voices Initiative at the Library of Congress, Scott Simon, host of Weekend Edition Saturday, shared his personal experiences as a reporter embedded with the US Army in Iraq.

I remember arriving in Iraq a few years ago to be embedded with a paratrooper unit and being introduced to the soldiers who would become my story, and in many ways, my inspiration.

The Public Affairs Officer said, "This is Mr. Simon from the NPR thing. You know it."

And then I heard a chorus of about a dozen young paratrooper's break out into song. The All Things Considered theme song, of course.

With all regard to Wynton Marsalis, and whatever grant we got to record him, that paratroop chorus remains my favorite rendition of that tune.

It has been my honor to get to know a number of men and women in uniform in various datelines around the world, from Baghdad and Kabul to Fort Brag. That's a handful of the more than two million who have served since 2001. They have left me with vivid impressions of their service.

The men and women in our armed services have chosen to serve. Their only strategy is to be useful.

They usually don't know where they might be sent; they know that months may stretch into years; and they know that on any given day, they may be called on to unflinchingly offer the service of their lives—for their fellow soldiers; for strangers; for their country; and for others, often from another place in another part of the world, who's fates and lives have been bound up with their own.

And in so many spots it's been my privilege to see them, from Carte Se in Kabul to Bamiyan, the Hindu Kush, Helmand, Tikrit, Mosul and Basra in Iraq; and at Fort Benning, Fort Ord, and in the Pentagon; and in all of those places, I have been awed by their service.

A couple of weeks ago on our program, we ran an interview with Kevin Hermening. He had been a Marine guard at the Embassy in Tehran when the 52 US hostages were taken. Kevin Hermening was the youngest—just 19 years old.

As he said to me, "I joined the marines to see the world. And I wound up being sent overseas, and mostly saw the inside of a closet."

At one point his mother, Barbara Timm, defied a travel ban and went to Tehran, and actually had a public appointment with the Ayatollah Khomeni, who offered to release her son so that he could travel back to the Oak Creek, Wisconsin with him.

But Kevin Hermening refused. When I asked him why a few weeks ago, he said, "Well, I didn't want anyone thinking that I needed my mom to get me out of trouble." And then he added, "And I'm a marine. I don't leave until I can be the last one out."

And as we will remind ourselves today, hearing some of the stories in the Military Voices Initiative, it's not only those in uniform who serve. Their families and loved ones lend their lives too, living with estrangement, anxiety, and longing and loneliness, to serve us all. At NPR, we see these stories as a bright opportunity to reach our audience with the kinds of voices that can change lives.

In recent years, there's been a tinge of pity that's come in to some of the public rhetoric about US soldiers. Voices who say they venerate their service, but regard US soldiers, sailors, and airmen as some kind of victims. They are not. I think some people just don't know how to recognize selflessness when they see it.

And what I find so affecting and exciting about the Military Voices Initiative is the chance to hear and share good stories. Not as pieces of history, though some day they may be that, too. Not as parables, though for some they may be that as well. But as human, involving, and vivid stories that can move us, amuse us, and inspire us to look inside our own lives for opportunities to serve, too.

Their grandchildren will be able to hear these stories and know: heroes walked among us.

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