A tough “Son of a Beach”: Telling war stories

Telling someone else’s story often helps you define your own. That’s what was written in an L.A. Times article about the San Quentin News, an inmate-produced newspaper in the San Quentin Prison,California.

Staffers say their work can induce soul-searching, that telling other people’s stories helps them explore their own lives. And it can be a source of pride.

I love journalism because it provides me a look into another person’s life. They paint the picture, but I am the medium. It’s hard not to get excited when you meet someone with similar life experiences that you can relate to – or, at the very least, someone with the same passion.

Today, George Butenschoen and I discussed his upbringing in South Dakota before WWII. I’m compiling a story about George’s experience during the war. George is a Bellingham, Wash., local, who joined the Navy in his early 20’s and saw three invasions in the Mediterranean. He lived on a small naval assault boat nicknamed “Son of a Beach” for practically three years.

We discussed his love of working the fields, his daily regimen on the farms, and of course, what it was like living in the “Dirty Thirties.” But inbetween this conversation, he tells me about looking into the water of Omaha Beach in Normandy and seeing the bodies of young Americans floating face down in the aftermath of D-Day.

IMG_4491(A worn photo of George Buttenschoen, pictured in his Navy uniform, c. 1942. Photo Courtesy of George Buttenschoen)

Sometimes he stops when we discuss these things, as if catching himself. He fumbles his words a bit and then turns his gaze away from me.

“That stuff was nothin’ compared to what my brother had seen.”

Oscar Buttenschoen, George’s younger brother, had been the epitome of an American hero in WWII. He was a gruff young man, “built like a brick house,” who would fight anything that moved, George tells me. While George had joined the Navy, Oscar joined the Army. Oscar served as a tanker under General Patton. Shortly after the war was over, he joined the Air Force. Oscar died in Salerno, Calif, in 1950 at the age of 28.

I do my best to reassure George that his story is just as important as Oscar’s. But I find myself in a parallel reality. Though I saw my own share of conflict in Iraq, I never saw the heavy fighting that some of my friends saw. I digress the same way George does when he brings up his experiences.

“It was never really that bad…”

Yet, I’m convinced that each of our stories is just as important. I’m continuously discovering my own meaning to my experience overseas.

Veterans are often easily coined in U.S. culture, especially in popular media. It is typically a one-dimensional perception though.

Former Army officer David Eisler wrote in a New York Times blog post:

If you listen closely to the national conversation about today’s veterans, you will hear two stories that seem to be at odds with each other.

One story is about healthy, hard-working, disciplined, well-trained and experienced veterans who would be an asset to any business or organization. The other tells of broken, disabled, traumatized veterans who have physical and behavioral health issues and require constant care and supervision.

Eisler provides great examples of two sensational views of veterans, in the past and present.

As a writer, I’m tempted to provide an audience with an entertaining and informative story. As a veteran, I’m obligated to tell a story that is authentic.

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