War Stories: The Telling Project gives veterans a stage and a voice

MELISSA MUNDY PHOTO | Gold Star Mother Chrys Kestler and veterans Jim Colligan, Howard Jackson, Michael (Zack) Mundy and Tom Spotteck during a recent rehearsal of The Telling Project at the Shelter Island School.

MELISSA MUNDY PHOTO | Gold Star Mother Chrys Kestler and veterans Jim Colligan, Howard Jackson, Michael (Zack) Mundy and Tom Spotteck during a recent rehearsal of The Telling Project at the Shelter Island School.

This is Part II of a two-part series. The first installment ran in the February 8, 2018 edition of the Reporter. A link to that story can be found below.

Four Shelter Island veterans — Howard Jackson, James Colligan, Michael (Zack) Mundy and Tom Spotteck — and one Gold Star Mother, Chrys Kestler, whose son Joe Theinert was killed while serving in Afghanistan in 2010, will take the stage at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor on Friday to share stories of their military experience. The presentation is part of The Telling Project, a national non-profit that brings the tales of veterans to the stage in order to deepen civilian understanding of the military and its personnel.

Since 2014, the Joseph J. Theinert Memorial Fund, which was created in honor of 1st Lt. Theinert, has been partnering with The Telling Project. In last week’s Reporter, two of the veterans, Mr. Mundy and Mr. Spotteck, talked about their experiences as Marines in Afghanistan and the difficulty in transitioning back to life at home as civilians. Both men are still in their 20s and their memories of Afghanistan are still fairly fresh and at times, painful.

But for the other two veterans — Howard Jackson and James Colligan — their respective wars were decades ago. As a result, they bring a perspective to their stories that comes only with time and wisdom, which they hope can be of use to their younger brethren.

Howard Jackson

COURTESY PHOTO | Howard Jackson pictured as a young soldier in World War II in the 1940s.

COURTESY PHOTO | Howard Jackson pictured as a young soldier in World War II in the 1940s.

Howard Jackson, who just turned 93, served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. He flew 23 special intelligence missions and over 20 regular missions during his time as a soldier.

As a bombardier, navigator and armament officer on B-24 Liberators, he served in North Africa and Italy where he saw plenty of action. During a recent interview at the Reporter, Mr. Jackson shared a list of the secret missions he flew in 1945 — the information was released by the government just five years ago — and he is candid about the dangers that fliers faced during the war.

“The Air Force lost 88,000 men in World War II,” he said. “There was a 47 percent casualty rate when you flew.”

Like most men of his generation, the war wasn’t something that veterans talked about after they came home.

“I never spoke about it for 20 years,” said Mr. Jackson who also served during the Cold War.

But now that he’s 93, Mr. Jackson isn’t shy about sharing his stories anymore. He recalled that when he was stationed in Rome in the mid 1940s, there  were still German troops and fascists present.

“We had an OSS [Office of Strategic Services] unit there. Everybody hated us and everybody shot at us,” Mr. Jackson said. “I was wounded in the hands and legs. I did intelligence work with a pistol and flashlight and was sent to Rome to search for the bodies of American airmen.”

Mr. Jackson faced great danger in the air as well, and said that once when his aircraft was hit and burning heavily, he used humor and the intercom in order to defuse the panic setting in among the crew. Dire situations like that could incite a level of fear that many young men had never faced. Because he went through it himself, he understands what younger soldiers may experience today and tries to reassure them.

“The difference between fear and terror is control,” he said. “Fear is a positive human element for your protection — you hear a noise and are alert. Whether you feel scared or whatever. But you’re conscious of it.

“Terror is when you lose control, lay down and let people walk over you,” he added. “But fear is a good thing. There’s nothing wrong in saying you’re scared to go in a dark room. The major mistake that was made, we were never permitted to talk about it. Either you were crazy or a coward — and the reality is, any normal person flying into the crap I had to 75 times would be scared.

“The difference is, you go in and do your job.”

COURTESY PHOTO | James Colligan during his service in Vietnam in the early 1970s.

COURTESY PHOTO | James Colligan during his service in Vietnam in the early 1970s.

James Colligan

James Colligan was a career military man who spent 29 years in the Army and retired as a colonel in 1997. Three of those years were spent on active duty in Vietnam where he was awarded a Bronze Star. For Mr. Colligan and thousands like him, the Vietnam War was much different than World War II, and represented a new kind of conflict — one in which the enemy didn’t wear a uniform and the objectives were often opaque.

“In World War II, the threat was real. We had Pearl Harbor and Hitler. But the Domino Theory and communism spreading to Southeast Asia — that’s a stretch,” Mr. Colligan said in a recent interview. “When people asked how was it, I said ‘I don’t think most people in Vietnam would know the difference between communism and democracy. They’re simple people who want the same thing we do.

“It was evident the war was not winnable. It’s hard to put your life on the line for a cause like that,” he said. “When the Pentagon Papers were published years later — how selfish that the highest levels of government would hide the truth.”

In Vietnam, in addition to the dangers of pursuing an elusive and resourceful enemy, perhaps Mr. Colligan’s larger battle involved soldiers under his command who were not eager to fight for their country. Drug addiction, violence, and tension between races were common among enlisted men.

“Vietnam was full of draftees, misfits and disillusioned people who didn’t know what they were getting themselves into,” Mr. Colligan said. “I had followed the Vietnam War every night on TV. Leaving Maguire Air Force Base, I knew what I was getting into.”

But many fellow soldiers did not, and Mr. Colligan often heard new recruits use derogatory phrases or racial slurs when referring to the enemy they were looking forward to killing.

“I just said, ‘Wait till you get there.’”

Like Mr. Jackson, though he had told his story in bits and pieces, because of The Telling Project it’s only recently that Mr. Colligan has put the whole of his Vietnam experience together — even his wife had never heard it all.

With U.S. involvement in conflicts like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, Mr. Colligan sees a great deal of similarities to Vietnam — particularly in terms of an unclear objective.

“The war in Afghanistan is a testament to that. What is the end game? If you stop 100 Americans on the street, no one could give you an idea of the end game there,” he said. “The Taliban and terrorism are worldwide — it’s Africa, the Middle East, the Far East and now it’s coming back to Europe and the U.S. and cells that aspire to act.”

In Mr. Mundy and Mr. Spotteck, Mr. Colligan sees earlier versions of himself — young men who are still healing, processing what they saw during their tours of duty, and struggling with the realities of readjusting to civilian life.

“I think this kind of experience — talking it out and getting it out — is helpful in your healing,” said Mr. Colligan. “I hope for everybody, including Chrys, these two young men and Howard to a certain extent, that they continue to heal and feel good about themselves.”

“They should hold their heads up high. They’ve been forced to do things an average person doesn’t have to do.”

The Telling Project will be presented at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater on Friday, February 16 at 7 p.m. Admission is a $20 donation. Reserve at JJTMF.org.

For Part I of this series, go to https://shelterislandreporter.timesreview.com/?s=telling&submit=Search

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