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The Sniper's Rifle & Other War Stories

If only I’d recorded their stories! Do you ever find yourself thinking or saying that?

If only.

Yesterday I was having a discussion with a new friend who just learned that I’m a personal historian. She lamented how much she wished she had recorded her grandfather’s stories. He was a World War II veteran and lived through remarkable war experiences. She remembers a few but a few were told to her by other family members and lack the detail only the original storyteller can provide.

“He told stories to my husband that he never told me. Like the time he climbed a hill, amidst enemy fire, to subdue a sniper. Sure enough, the sniper attack ended. And my grandfather walked away with the sniper’s rifle! At some time when he was travelling back from the war, he was told he couldn’t keep the gun. He told how he came to be the owner of the weapon and that if he wasn’t allowed to keep the gun, it would have to be taken from him just as he took it from that sniper. He was allowed to him keep the gun.”

How many more incredible and heroic stories exist just like that one?

I think most people hold military veterans in high honor and would be enthralled by their stories. Yet, by and large, they are a quiet bunch. They did what they needed to do at a time when the world desperately needed them to do it. Then they came back home and returned to their lives. Most mentally locked away their war stories and the horrors of what they experienced. They were looking to start their lives, not rehash their escapades.

NPR recently shared the story behind Dadland. The book is a family memoir by author Keggie Carew. Carew sought to tell her father’s story but it wasn’t nearly as straightforward as presumed. She had to unravel her World War II spy dad’s life, one secret mission at a time. At the same time she began her research for the book, her dad began slipping away, gripped by dementia. Fortunately, she was able to piece together quite a bit. Some from her own memories, some from those who served with her dad, and some from declassified military documents.

Why do we wait to learn the history of our loved ones? Do we feel it's impolite to ask? Or is it that we'd like to but the time never feels right? Or maybe we think dredging up the past will be painful? Or perhaps we assume we know all of their stories? I suppose these are all valid reasons but what if we wait too long for just the right time?

What if...between now and Memorial Day, you sit and talk with someone who served in the military? Ask them about their story. Thank them for their service. Buy them a cup of coffee. And if you can record their story...all the better! For all they’ve done for us, isn’t this a simple way to honor them?