A Long Way From Home 

Holiday stories from those who served

During a nickel tour of the Idaho State Veterans Home, Volunteer Coordinator Phil Hawkins talked about being pulled from the jungles of Vietnam one Christmas to see Bob Hope perform at a USO show. He said that on base he was treated differently for being a "grunt," but he got to shake Hope's hand. It was clear the encounter left a deep impression on him.

"I got to look him right in the eye," Hawkins said.

Not everyone at the VA has such strong memories of holidays spent far from family and friends during their service. They came from all kinds of backgrounds and served their country in many different ways. One of them, Richard Seher, served in the Army's 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam; he spent part of one Christmas under enemy fire. Another, Billy Gibson, cut glass and repaired cars and trucks on base in Arizona during the 1950s, far from combat.

The VA holds a trove of such stories; walking through the facilities, Hawkins pointed out some of the things he's proud of at the home. On a "wall of honor," photos of veterans are pinned to a corkboard set at eye level for those residents who get around by wheelchair or walker. One wing of the facility is dedicated to caring for veterans who are nearing the end of their lives—Hawkins called it "going home." Out front, a memorial with flags and stone markers honors soldiers whose sacrifice wasn't recognized for decades because of their ethnicity.

"It's shameful," Hawkins said of the discrimination that kept those service members from recognition.

At the Idaho State Veterans Home, everyone is united in their service and sacrifice, which includes giving up time with the people they love—a price often paid most dearly during the holidays. Here are a few of their stories about what it was like to mark those special dates when they—or their loved ones—were in uniform.

  • Harrison Berry
  • Rose Evans

Rose Evans

Paintings of WWII-era bombers, warships and American flags hung alongside still-lifes and landscapes on the walls of the VA's arts and crafts room, but one of the paintings stood out. It was the iconic Rosie the Riveter cradling her rivet gun on her lap while pondering a sandwich in her left hand, with the Stars and Stripes as a backdrop.

Rosie's pose exudes confidence, but the artist who painted her, Rose Evans, was comparatively shy. Her voice was soft and hesitant—that is, until she started to reminisce about the holiday meals she ate with family in Dos Palos, Calif., while her first husband, Raymond Henry, served as a Green Beret in Vietnam. She fondly remembered huge quantities of cheesy beans, peas and dumplings, and sweet potato pie served to her nine biological brothers and in-laws.

"His mom had to do it [cook]," she said. "And I had to do all the dishes! Well hey, I had my turn."

It wasn't just good times in the Henry household, however, and Rose remembers messages of love from her then-husband, as well as somber moments with her in-laws, many of whom served in WWII.

"They told me how it was on the battlegrounds. You see all the wounded and the blood. They said you see bodies. They talked about it. It was better for them to get it out because they told me about the flashbacks and they needed somebody to talk to about it," she said.

Today, Rose lives in the VA Home with her second husband, Gene Evans, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War.

  • Harrison Berry
  • Billy Gibson

Billy Gibson

Billy Gibson's voice is rough and he speaks slowly. He's not choosing his words, his words are choosing him, and they're taking their time. Gibson sat alone at a workbench in the VA Home's arts and crafts room gluing together a Piper L4 Grasshopper—a small, single-engine surveillance plane used in the latter part of WWII.

Gibson didn't work with Pipers when he served in the Air Force from 1955-1959, stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Ariz. Instead, he served in an on-the-job training program performing auto body repair on trucks and cars, cutting and installing windshield glass. The Air Force had taken him from his home state of Missouri to Glendale, where he met his future wife, Sharon Bouma, on a blind date. She was a student at the time.

"People kept saying, 'Well, you're robbing the cradle. She was 16. I was 21," Gibson said.

They spent the holidays with her parents in nearby Phoenix, eating "turkey or whatever."

The Gibsons moved to Twin Falls in the 1970s, where they lived with Sharon's aunt, and Billy worked at the sugar factory for 11 years. In the end, "things didn't work out," and the Gibsons moved to Filer, and finally to Boise.

Gibson has been at the Boise VA Home for 11 years, and for much of that time, Sharon lived at the Life Care Center of Treasure Valley. They'd spend the holidays together eating ice cream, their meetings facilitated by both the Life Care Center and the VA Home. They were treated well, he said, "even when she was in her last days."

Sharon died on Sept.11, 2012.

"I don't have a hard time remembering that date," Gibson said.

Donald "Don" Braden - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Donald "Don" Braden

Don Braden

In his pale blue jeans, beige-colored sweater and double-thick crew socks, Don Braden looked like he belonged in front of a roaring fire reading a book. In fact, he was looking to pick up some new reading material from the VA Home's stock of paperbacks before discussing a Thanksgiving he spent in California in 1951, geographically sandwiched between his father, who was at the time living in San Diego, and his mother, who was living in Washington state with her second husband, who'd fought in WWI—the only other person in Braden's family who'd served in the military.

It was the thick of the Korean War and Braden had been drafted into the National Guard in '51. He was serving in an artillery unit out of McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, Calif. Specifically, he synchronized mechanical parts on 90-millimeter anti-aircraft guns to ensure that the shells loaded and ejected properly.

The Thanksgiving feast, he said, was "nice"—canned turkey and cranberry dressing (also out of a can)—but the real treat was the beverages. A few of the other men in his outfit, he implied, had given perhaps too much thanks that year.

"I had a little beer to wash it down," he said. "Some of the other fellows did the same thing, but I didn't get into the liquor habit."

The mess hall holiday contrasted with the quiet Christmases he spent with his mother, with whom he said he was close, and his stepfather, in Washington. Braden seemed to prefer the peace and quiet there, and mostly recalled his life in the military as anything but tranquil, even though he never saw combat. He described his unit as "kind of a bat outfit" led by "a little sergeant, three stripes on his arm. He wasn't much good: He started goofing off and he got into trouble."

He also remembered an instance of leniency that impressed him. One evening, Braden left the base without signing out, and on his return, learned from his commanding officer that he'd been absent without leave for several hours.

"My CO gave me a choice: I'd violated an article of war and faced a court martial—or pulling extra duty," he said. Braden opted for extra work in the mess hall.

"He gave me an earful but he was a nice fellow; he looked out for his men," he said.

When he was 24 years old, Braden visited his father in San Diego, but abandoned the sunshine and palm trees for Idaho to live with his mother and stepfather on a farm in Benewah County. He has been at the VA Home for a year and a half.

Dwayne Sharpin - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Dwayne Sharpin

Dwayne Sharpin

Dwayne Sharpin described himself as an "anchor clanker." He served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Princeton during the Korean War, operating one of its many 5-inch guns. He didn't mince words—apologizing for his occasional harsh language—but his boyish charm was marked by easy humor and strong opinions on just about everything.

"I lived in a mining camp up in the Sawtooth range. My mother cooked for the crewmen. Nothing up there. I went to a class reunion. It was dead." he said. "Anything's better than living in Challis."

Sharpin said Challis was "dead" even before he hitched out of there to Pocatello, where he planned on enlisting in the Marines shortly after his 18th birthday. Instead, he joined the Navy in April 1950, for two reasons: first, he was too short (Sharpin's stature would also preclude him from serving in the Oregon State Police); second, "I heard about [Navy] uniforms. They got a real pretty uniform, stripe down one leg," he said.

Holidays didn't mean much to Sharpin aboard the Princeton. His daily responsibilities were fairly static, "hanging around the gun" and swabbing down its massive barrel with Cosmoline, a vile-smelling, industrial-grade anti-rust grease.

"Just the same as any other day," he said. "Christmas was the same as Thanksgiving. I don't miss 'em."

Holidays weren't marked with time off, easy sailing or a reprieve from the threat of combat, but they were set apart from the rest of the year by the food, which Sharpin seemed to appreciate. One Thanksgiving, he and the crew were served from a 5-gallon can of turkey, and the cook managed to scrape together enough bread to serve dressing. Sharpin reminisced warmly about the Japanese beer served with the meals.

"Yeah, we drank quite a bit. Japanese beer would knock you flat on your butt. Nippon, 12 percent alcohol. Boy, it's really knock-you-flat," he said.

After his discharge with the rank of Third-Class Gunner, Sharpin shifted between Eastern Oregon and Western Idaho, receiving his high-school diploma in Pendleton, Ore., trying to serve as an Oregon State Police officer and the U.S. Forest Service, and finally settling on the Bench in Boise, where he worked at Pacific Recycling. He even took a crack at going to college, but his G.I. Bill could only be applied to a "class A" universities—the nearest being the University of Idaho.

Sharpin has lived at the VA Home for three years and has always been an avid reader, claiming to have read "all them Westerns" in the Home's library. Part of what makes him such a prodigious reader, he said, was his distaste for some of the Home's group entertainments.

"See, I don't play Bingo. I hate that stupid game," he said.

Richard Seher - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Richard Seher

Richard Seher

Richard Seher sat in his wheelchair at one of the tables in the VA's dining area, his Army baseball cap covered with patches and pins. One of the patches read, "Will Kill for Peace."

Seher's father served in the Army during WWII, distinguishing himself by capturing three Germans with a 35-caliber pistol. He later became a member of the Military Police, and was photographed shaking hands with a general. Seher described him as "sort of a boozer," but the image of Seher's father in his white MP helmet shaking hands with a general inspired him. He enlisted on Sept. 9, 1965.

"I always wanted to be better than him," he said of his father.

Seher said he won his private game of one-upsmanship with his father. He achieved the rank of buck sergeant within 18 months of his enlistment and attended the prestigious NCO Academy in Germany, where he re-enlisted so he could fight in Vietnam. That's when Seher contracted pneumonia, ran a fever of 106.2 degrees, sank into a two-and-a-half day coma and had to be packed on ice. He came to with the ability to make a brassy honking noise, of which he seemed especially proud. After waking up in a German hospital, he tried to ask a tall, blonde, blue-eyed nurse where he was and what had happened to him.

"All that came out of my mouth was HRRRRNNN! That's the story of my horn," Seher beamed.

Seher served in the First Cavalry Division—one of the Army's most decorated divisions, which had been converted in Vietnam from a conventional infantry unit into an air assault unit equipped with helicopters. Seher remembered helicopter delivery of "hot chow" every night, and "milk so cold it'd freeze your throat."

"I remember one time I was getting sniped at and Dillard tossed me a chicken wing. I reached up and grabbed it and I heard, 'Ding ding!'" he said, making the sound of bullets plinking against metal.

Seher spent one Thanksgiving in a rubber plantation near An Loc. That year, he was airlifted sliced turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing and cranberry sauce. For dessert, he had the unusual treat of chocolate ice cream. He described the holidays, like the danger he experienced in the field—for half an hour on that particular Thanksgiving he was under sniper fire—as "normal" and "routine." He thought about his family "quite a lot," but it wasn't the only thing on his mind.

"I just wanted to be in the Army," he said.

Seher moved to Boise from his hometown of Sacramento, Calif., to be closer to his son. At the VA, he said, holidays are a special treat. When BW spoke with him, he was looking forward to Thanksgiving, when residents are served two lavish-sounding meals instead of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

"Everybody else gets one meal—well, we get two. For lunch we get turkey and all the fixin's, and pumpkin pie. That's my favorite. I request a whole slice of pumpkin pie. Then for supper, we get ham. And I don't know what we get for dessert. Won't be pumpkin pie. They're going to have something else. That's going to be awesome," he said.

In 1971, Seher returned to Sacramento and went to work in a cousin's auto body shop, where he helped to restore a 1953 Corvette. His father told him, "I could have put you in college." Seher told his father, "I just wanted to go into the Army."

His feelings toward service changed dramatically in the time between his enlistment and when he received his discharge. Sitting in the Home's cafeteria, Seher said he abhors violence.

"It's just too traumatic. When you've got to pull the trigger from a termite hill and blow some guy's brains out, watch some guy's head explode, watch buddies burned up alive," Seher said.

"I was through killing. I don't want anything to do with it."

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