Veterans' Stories: Project 412

Credit Flickr user fifty four photo

Veterans' Stories: Project 412 is a series of interviews created and produced by a group of Pittsburgh-area active-duty military personnel and veterans in 2014. 90.5 WESA partnered with Leadership Pittsburgh's Community Leadership Course for Veterans to shine a spotlight on area veterans from all branches of the military, who share personal memories and stories about their service in conflicts from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan.

This project supported in part by a Seed Award from The Sprout Fund. 

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Ryan Ahl enlisted in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard in 2002 and was eventually commissioned as a second lieutenant.

Ahl said his fondest memories from two deployments to Iraq were the days spent occupying observational posts and knowing he had the support of his fellow soldiers.

“You’re in a war zone and you’re with three of your closest buddies and anything could happen," he said. "And it normally did.”

Ahl said he feels part of something bigger than himself. He has gained a respect for freedom and understanding of other cultures through his service.

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Ron Worstell served as an infantryman for the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1970.

“I tell everybody that my time in Vietnam of one year at the age of 20 something was really five percent of my life at that time, but that experience is 75 percent of who I am today,” he said.

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Tom Jones served aboard amphibious assault ships for the U.S. Navy during the Battle of Okinawa during World War II.

As 18 and 19 year olds, Jones said he thinks he was too young and inexperienced to be scared.

“I think being young at that time, it was just an experience," he said. "You don’t realize exactly what is going on until you get a lot older and reflect back on those situations you were in.”

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Amanda Haines served in Iraq as an intelligence analyst for the Marine Corps from 2003-2008. She rose to the rank of sergeant.

By the time she was deployed to Fallujah, the larger conflicts were over, and she says she was there to work with the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.

Haines joined the military the summer after she graduated high school. From learning to manage finances to dealing with being away from home, Haines said she grew up in the Marine Corps.

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Shawn Jones was a paratrooper and instructor with the U.S. Army from 2001 until he received a medical discharge in 2012. As he rose to the rank of staff sergeant, Jones says his leadership gave him the soldiers who were at risk of being discharged.
 
“They gave him to me because they were going to kick him out,” he said.

His favorite memories of his service were when those soldiers changed their attitudes and climbed the ranks.

As for regrets, Jones says he learned the value of time. He didn’t accomplish some of his goals.

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Amy Mattila was an occupational therapist at Walter Reed Hospital while in the U.S. Army from 2005-2011. Mattila, who rose to the rank of captain, says having the opportunity to treat injured soldiers coming back from Iraq at the height of the conflict changed who she is today.

Mattila now teaches occupational therapy at Chatham University. Her experience at Walter Reed has come full circle, she says, as she now connects her students to past patients for community service work.

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Ben Keen served in the U.S. Army from 1999-2008 and rose to the rank of Sergeant E-5.

While serving in Iraq he learned the leadership skills that helped him launch Steel City Vets, a support group for post-9/11 veterans.

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John Stakeley served with the Army National Guard for 13 and a half years,  and for the last three years as a Captain with the U.S. Army Reserves.

While he didn’t have one defining moment, Stakeley said the Army established a trust and a bond he hasn’t experienced anywhere else. He said that was especially true when he was deployed to Iraq in 2005.

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Theo Collins served six years with the Marine Corps, including a tour in Afghanistan.

Toward the end of his career he worked with Wounded Warriors, assisting injured veterans to events. After his time of service, Collins joined a fellow marine he met in Afghanistan on "Project 22," a documentary looking at veteran suicide.

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Chris Mohnke, a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, left the Coast Guard earlier this year as a Lieutenant junior grade after five years of service.

He learned to be a leader, met his best friends in the Coast Guard.

“It’s hard to gauge how much the service has changed me as a person because up until very recently my entire adult life has been in the Coast Guard,” he said.

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Listen to the stories of some Pittsburgh area veterans on how military service impacted their lives.

More than 230,000 former military personnel call the Pittsburgh region ranging from World War II veterans to those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.