Stories from the Stage

S5 E4 | FULL EPISODE

Serving with Honor

Service members and their families demonstrate their character and resolve in the most trying of circumstances. As a case manager working with refugees, former military Kevin challenges his assumptions about others; after penpalling her brother’s Navy buddies, Juli-anne understands the impact of her letters; and James tries to connect with his brother killed in the Vietnam War.

AIRED: November 08, 2021 | 0:26:30
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM GRIFFIN: There was a large man in uniform standing

on my front porch.

"Your son, specialist four Thomas Brinsley Griffin Jr.,

is missing in Vietnam."

JULI-ANNE WHITNEY JENSEN: 30 years ago,

my big brother Pete

enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

He was a senior in high school

and he had everything going for him.

KEVIN DUTREMBLE: It took me like ten minutes

just sitting in my car outside of the apartment

just giving myself a pep talk.

And I go in but nothing could have prepared me

for what was waiting inside.

GRIFFIN: My name is Jim Griffin and I grew up in

the Dorchester section of Boston, Massachusetts,

and I was the sixth out of seven children,

came from a neighborhood where everyone had a large family

and a small family in my neighborhood was five kids.

I still live in the Boston area.

I'm still very close with my family who also

lives in the Boston area, and I work for a large

financial firm in downtown Boston.

What are some of your earliest memories

of growing up as a kid in Dorchester?

There were a ton of kids in the neighborhood 'cause

everyone had a minimum of five kids in the family

and we ran around like a wild pack of dogs

and we were always in trouble-- not major trouble.

We weren't criminals, we were just pests.

And that's what I remember most, is the camaraderie and...

there was no such thing as a helicopter parent in those days.

It was, "Get out of the house,

and don't come back till the street lights are on."

And so we were out all the time.

And we had to invent our own games most of the time,

and that's what we did.

HAZARD: So obviously your story is deeply personal

and I'm just wondering what was the most difficult

part about writing and sharing it?

The most difficult part for me in the beginning

was boiling it down.

I... when I tell the story, it takes 25 minutes.

And then the second most difficult part

was trying to recite the story without crying.

And the first week,

I didn't think I was going to be able to do it

without crying.

I didn't think I was going to be able to get on stage

and actually tell the story, but I kept practicing

and eventually it worked its way out.

And obviously this is an event that you experienced

first as a child and then, you know,

you... it's been with you ever since then.

I'm wondering why now, what feels right about

this time to be sharing your story?

I think it's a story that needs to be told.

I think it's a story about...

life is made up of missed connections.

And...

sometimes the missed connection benefits you

and sometimes it doesn't.

And I think this is one where I had a couple

of hits and misses and then it connected and changed my life.

In the summer of 1967,

while I was playing Little League baseball,

my brother Tommy went off to Vietnam.

He was 19 years old.

He was assigned to the Army Postal Unit,

and back home we thought that that meant

he had a desk job and that he'd be safe.

Six months later, as I was watching

the evening news with my brothers,

the doorbell rang.

When I answered it, there was a large man in uniform

standing on my front porch.

He leaned over to me and he said,

"Son, is your mother at home?"

Now, I was 11 years old.

Having a man in uniform on the front porch

didn't mean anything to me.

I just yelled out, "Ma, someone's at the door."

When my mother came to the door, she immediately started to cry.

The house went into a tizzy.

My dad came home from his night job.

My older brothers and sisters cried,

aunts and uncles came by the house.

Over the next couple of days,

friends and neighbors came by the house.

Some people dropped off food,

and I was able to read the telegram that

the officer left my mother.

It said, "The secretary of the Army has asked

"me to express his deep regrets.

"Your son, specialist four Thomas Brinsley Griffin Jr.,

"is missing in Vietnam.

"He was last seen as a passenger on a military aircraft

that crashed and burned for unknown reasons."

After I read that I realized my brother wasn't coming home.

After we buried my brother,

my mother would sometimes say aloud,

"I wonder what he was doing on an aircraft."

She said she never worried about him

because he had a desk job.

Flash forward 15 years.

I'm hanging at my local bar room with my younger brother

and one of the guys comes up to us and says

he met a guy that was delivering something to his work

who claimed my brother took his place

on a helicopter that went down in Vietnam.

He couldn't give me the guy's name,

he didn't know where the guy worked,

so I just filed that story away.

There was no follow up.

My mother died in December of 1985,

and she never knew the circumstances

around my brother's death.

Flash forward another 15 years, it's the late '90s.

My father says one night,

"I'd really like to know what happened to your brother."

And I promised him I'd find out.

I figured I have the story from the bar room

and I'll do a quick internet search

and I'll have an answer in about two days.

I spent a big chunk of the next two years

in various chat rooms and Vietnam veteran websites

and came up with nothing.

I remembered my mother had a photograph of my brother

with three guys in Vietnam,

and she had written their names and their home states

on the back of the picture.

I found it and started randomly calling people

with those names in those states

and I came up with nothing.

My dad died in October of 2004,

and I wasn't able to keep my promise.

And I stopped searching soon after that,

but every once in a while,

I'd type my brother's name into Google and the first hit

would always be the Vietnam Memorial

in Washington, D.C.,

and after that, local and state monument sites.

Seven years after my dad died, October 2011,

I was sitting at my desk at work

and I typed my brother's name into Google.

First hit was the wall in D.C.

The second hit was a website called Military Friends Network

and there was a posting on it that was two years old

that said, "Thomas Griffin took my place

"on a postal helicopter that went down in Vietnam.

"Not one day has gone by in the last 40 years

where I haven't thought about him."

And it was signed, "Respectfully, Doug."

My eyes popped out of my head.

Oh my God, this is the guy from the bar room story.

I had to find him.

I wrote emails, I sent letters, I made phone calls,

and I left voicemails, and I got nothing in response.

And I was so dejected because I was sure now that Doug

had died in the two years between the time he posted

and the time I read it.

Yet a week later while I was driving home

from my office in downtown Boston,

my cell phone rang, and when I answered it,

the voice said, "Is this Jim?"

I said, "Yes." He said, "This is Doug."

I almost drove up on the sidewalk.

He apologized for not calling me sooner,

but he had been on a business trip to Boston.

He had actually been working

right down the street from my office.

He got very emotional and he told me,

"I've never spoken to anyone about this in 40 years,

not even to my wife."

He told me that he met my brother when my brother came

in country in July of 1967.

He said they became very close

and they worked together in the postal unit.

He said in late December 1967,

Doug was scheduled to go on R&R to Hawaii

and my brother asked if he could take his place

on the postal helicopter runs.

Doug ran it by the commanding officer

and everyone signed off, and Doug went off to Hawaii.

He said when he came back, my brother was dead.

He told me that he stayed in the service for 20 years

after the Vietnam War ended,

and he worked all over the country and he met all

sorts of people and he couldn't remember one of them.

But he said, "I'll always remember your brother."

He even remembered my brother's birthday, October 24th.

When he said that I had to pull my car over and dry my eyes.

I thanked him for getting back in touch with me

and asked if we could stay in touch,

and he said he would like that.

And after that day, I never spoke to Doug again.

I've never met him in person.

But every Christmas, every New Year,

every Memorial Day, every Veteran's Day,

and every October 24th,

I get an email from him.

And I respond the same way he responds to me,

"One of the great highlights of my life

is getting in touch with you."

I couldn't keep that promise to my dad,

but getting in touch with Doug allowed me to reach out

and touch my brother one last time.

And my brother's memory lives on

outside of my family

because of Doug and his family.

And because of that, I'll always be grateful.

JENSEN: My name is Juli-Anne Whitney Jensen

and I live in New Jersey.

For the last 25 years I've spent my career in politics and film

as a communications professional.

And now I'm back in New Jersey living with my husband,

who was stationed at Fort Dix in the Army.

And, um, we're looking forward

to the next chapter in our lives.

You've spent so much of your professional life

helping other people and organizations share

their stories and now you're bringing a story to our stage.

Do you find it hard to follow your own advice

for effective storytelling?

It makes me more empathetic towards my clients

and the people that I've worked with because I have to

step back and remind myself, "Okay, where's the heart?

Where's the, where's the show, not just the tell?"

Growing up, was there a storyteller in your family?

Like the designated person... like this is the person, like,

at Thanksgiving, family reunions

we can count on to sort of light up the room?

Everybody.

- Everybody? - Yeah, everybody,

with the exception of maybe me because I was the baby

and I was always just trying to be, like... trying to be heard.

Everybody has their own... their own way of sharing

and when we all get together, it's...

you know, we just take over.

Because everybody's in on it

and everybody's bigger than life.

30 years ago my big brother Pete enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

He was a senior in high school,

and he had everything going for him.

He was getting his varsity letter in three sports,

he was homecoming king,

and he was also the king of all parties.

Every single weekend my parents were gone,

the kegs came in.

People came from states all around just for his parties.

And he learned young because

every dinner, every night, was a party at our house.

I was number eight.

He was number seven.

And we had the best dinners.

It was laughing, singing, dancing...

and fighting.

Lots of fighting between me and Pete.

We hated each other.

We were mortal enemies

because we were so different.

Because he was this jock, he was Mr. Parkridge High.

I was the school mascot,

and I dressed up like a big bird.

(laughter)

So, when he went off to the Navy,

part of me was kind of like,

"Thank God!"

It's like, "Some peace."

Until war.

Right after he enlisted, he was deployed,

and he was sent on a ship across the Pacific

to the Persian Gulf for the first Iraq War.

And that changed our relationship.

We started writing letters.

And he went from being this person that I hated,

to the person I could rely on.

He was the person that could make me feel better

about high school, about life,

about everything that goes on for a teenager.

It's like, you know, everything from acne to... just life.

And the whole time he's being supportive of me,

I had no idea how bad it was for him.

This was the first time he was ever away from home.

He was 18 years old,

six-foot-three,

and stuck in child-sized quarters with no fresh air,

no fresh water, no fresh food,

months on end at sea,

with people who are basically strangers.

And the whole time I'm complaining,

he's bucking me up.

He's the one supporting me.

And one day he sends me a letter and he says,

"You know what?

"I get all these letters from home.

"I get letters from Mom and Dad, all our brothers and sisters,

"and you know what?

"There are guys here, who are now my buddies,

"that don't get letters, they don't have anybody at home.

"They don't have big families.

"They don't have... some of them don't have any family at all.

Could you please send them some letters?"

So, I did.

And, you know, I sent the same things

that I would send to my brother.

You know, complaining about not going to the prom,

complaining about, you know,

what happened at the latest track meet, you know,

what happened in, you know, history class.

And all these guys, they did the same thing.

They bucked me up.

They were all like, "Hey, it's not so bad.

You can do this."

And they were on their way to war.

And they were the ones supporting me,

this 16-year-old geek.

And they were like... they became like my big brothers.

Like, not that I didn't already have enough.

(audience laughter)

But they were... they were all there for me.

And so, after a year, after sharing all these

letters and photos and care packages,

they all went on to new assignments,

I went off to college,

and we stopped staying in touch.

And I never met any of those guys.

Until just last year.

My brother got promoted to major.

He'd transferred to the Army.

And he decided to have one of his epic parties

where he invited everyone:

Army buddies, Navy buddies, family, friends, everyone.

And as soon as the doors open, in walk his buddies,

and in walks Cash.

He's one of the guys that I shared the most letters with.

And I took one look at him, and I knew,

even though it was like, you know, decades later,

hey, that's... that's the guy.

That's the guy I used to share letters with.

And my brother introduces us,

even though, really, no introductions were necessary.

And I think to myself, "Do I mention the letters?

Do I not mention the letters?"

I just decided, you know what,

let it go, enjoy the night, have some fun.

And it turned out that he was the one who actually

performed the promotion for my brother.

He did an amazing toast.

There wasn't a dry eye in the house,

especially my family because we're all huge crybabies.

And the night went on great.

I mean, dancing, laughing, singing, the whole thing.

Shut down the Knights of Columbus,

went to an Irish pub, lots of drinks flowed,

and my big mouth stayed shut about those letters.

Until the next morning,

we all end up meeting up at the local diner.

And in walks the Navy buddies, and in walks Cash,

and they're all sitting down,

and we're talking about old stories.

And they start talking about how Pete used to get

the best letters, the best care packages,

and now they could see why,

because they actually for the first time

could see this big huge family and how amazing it was.

And I said, "Well, yeah," I was like, "You know, that's,

you know, that's just what we do."

I was like, "You know, it was, it was nice to send him letters

and to send some of the other guys letters too."

And they were like, "You know, yeah."

They were like, "We love that stuff, you know,

"anything from home...

it's, like, it meant everything to us."

And we were finishing breakfast, and everybody's saying goodbye,

and, you know, pats on backs and hugs and everything.

And Cash comes over to me, and he gives me the biggest hug.

Like just like huge bear hug.

And he whispers in my ear

and he says, "I was one of those guys."

And I said, "I know."

Thank you.

(applause)

I had no idea these letters would have such an impact.

To hear these guys, you know, almost 30 years later,

you know, get teary-eyed, and for myself to get, you know,

emotional about it, just shows how much

a simple act of kindness and sharing with someone

can really have an impact on your whole life.

DUTREMBLE: I'm a Massachusetts native,

I went to school in Boston,

and then I worked in medical devices for a while.

Then I went to the military

and then I reached out locally and started volunteering

with refugees and immigrants in just a volunteer capacity,

and then eventually full-time employment.

THERESA OKOKON: Wow.

Can you tell me a bit about that work and why you do it?

So, I initially got interested in working with refugees

because I actually was really interested

in international conflict.

And I decided I wanted to work with and help people

who are displaced

or at-risk because of those conflicts.

So ultimately I would like to

work in policy and security.

And I think there's a lot of value in having

a ground-level experience with the people

that those policies affect.

Is this your first time telling a story on stage?

Yes.

(laughing): I have no experience at all.

I tell stories to my friends, and family, and coworkers.

And I'm actually known for probably being a little bit

too verbose and taking too much time.

So not only is this my first time on stage

in front of a large audience,

but I have to be concise.

But I'm excited about it. I'm really excited.

What have you learned about yourself in this experience?

It's actually been a really valuable exercise in reflecting.

And, you know, not everyone has the opportunity

to be a case manager with refugees.

Not everyone has the opportunity to even meet a refugee.

So if I can share some of that experience,

or knowledge about it,

I think that's-that's a service that I need to provide.

In 2016, 2,399 refugees were resettled in Massachusetts.

I resettled 75 of them, specifically single males.

Now, in Boston,

because of the cost of housing, we only take single males,

because they have to be employable

and they have to have roommates.

So if you take that number, that means on average,

we're looking at a new two-bedroom apartment

every two-and-a-half weeks, in Boston.

It has to be accessible and affordable.

On top of that, the landlords have to agree to take clients

they've never met,

who don't have social security cards,

or credit histories, or savings,

or any employment yet.

So, it's almost a constant effort just to look

for housing before they even arrive.

So, with housing, logistics is just part of it.

The other part is figuring out who is going to live with who.

So I actually developed a big spreadsheet

of where all of our people live and information about them.

So where they're from, what languages they speak,

what's their religion,

dietary restrictions.

Just so that when someone arrives,

they can be comfortable

and have the best chances at success

in the beginning stages of their life in America.

So it's August 2016.

We just got through a crazy month scrambling for apartments,

and I'm looking to see

who is coming next.

I've got three arrivals over the next three weeks,

and I check my list,

and I've actually got three spots, so that's great.

Then I start to look and see who they are.

I quickly realize that, in this apartment,

two bedrooms, I'm going to have four men

from different countries--

different languages, different cultures,

different religions, different educations,

different backgrounds, different jobs.

Nothing in common on this sheet.

As a case manager, this makes me a little bit nervous,

because I've had apartments with six guys from the same country,

even the same village, and they can't live together,

just because of personalities.

But it's all we have, and we're going to make it work.

So I'll tell you a little bit about the four guys.

The one who is already there is from Ethiopia,

and he's one of the nicest guys I've ever met.

Always had a positive attitude.

Even coming home from working all night

in a refrigerated packing facility, he was in a good mood.

The next to arrive was a client from Afghanistan.

He showed up with this

camouflage baseball cap,

and a tactical wristwatch, and his English was great.

I found out that it's because

he worked as an interpreter with U.S. Army Special Forces

for three years in Afghanistan.

He was actually wounded in combat three times

during that time period.

Awesome guy.

The next to arrive was a 20-year-old kid from Iraq.

And is not what you'd think.

He showed up with Chuck Taylors and skinny jeans

and a t-shirt with skulls on it,

and like a leather wristband with metal studs on it.

Not what you'd expect.

And all he was concerned about was music, he was--

and he listened to everything, from Mariah Carey to Metallica.

And he was just a good kid.

Finally, there was an older gentleman from Somalia.

Very well-dressed, very dapper.

Zero English.

And when Somali didn't work, he tried to speak to me in Italian,

which also didn't really work.

So these four guys are sharing

a small two-bedroom apartment in Massachusetts.

Now that everyone's there, we do a home visit,

and we basically have a house meeting with all the roommates,

and we lay the ground rules,

we talk about respecting each other's space,

and other things where people who haven't lived

with other adults from other cultures,

you have to do this just to make it... make it work.

So the morning I'm going to do this home visit,

I'm just expecting it

to be very difficult.

A lot of things lost in translation,

a lot of different personalities.

A lot of expectation management.

And I'm dreading it.

Took me like ten minutes, just sitting in my car

outside of the apartment, just giving myself a pep talk.

And I go in, but nothing--

in all of the cases and all of the clients

and all of the apartments--

could have prepared me for what was waiting inside.

Everything's clean, everything's organized,

it was cleaner than the way I left it before they arrived.

And everyone was in a good mood.

And they had just finished breakfast,

and they had already done the dishes.

They're sharing tea.

Even on the fridge, there's a chart

with the chores for the week

in four different languages and scripts.

(laughter)

And they had done all of this

before I even sat them all down together.

And I was amazed, and it was awesome,

and I felt a little foolish for expecting the worst

and literally getting the best.

And this wasn't a fluke, it wasn't a honeymoon,

and they kept this atmosphere, like a family,

the entire time they lived together.

They would study together, they'd take the train together,

they helped each other make bank accounts.

But it wasn't perfect.

There was one day,

about two months after that first visit.

I'm visiting a new arrival in the apartment next door.

And as I'm going in,

their apartment has the door open,

and I hear a commotion inside.

I go through the open door and I see the four roommates,

and then a bunch of other people--

neighbors, friends supposedly interpreting.

No idea what's going on, but it's an argument.

They don't even notice me come in.

I try to get them to calm down,

and through the open door behind me comes the landlord.

And I think, "This is the last thing I need.

I'm going to lose this landlord and these apartments."

But before I can say anything,

the landlord takes control of the room

and tells everyone to be quiet and sit down.

And mind you, he's about this tall,

he's 70 years old and he's from Cambodia,

and he, himself, left a conflict in his own country.

He sat them down, and he said,

"We've all seen enough conflict.

"We don't need this.

"We need to respect each other, we need to support each other.

We need to love each other, we need to be brothers."

And they got it.

Regardless of what language they spoke, they got it.

And it was done.

They made up, they made tea, they carried on.

I later found out they were arguing about what temperature

they should keep the apartment.

(laughter)

So I realize that all of my expectations were built on data;

who they are, where they're from, what language they speak.

That's not really who they are.

Their core values were much stronger

than all of those things.

They were all kind, they were all patient,

they were all hard-working,

and they all wanted to make the world better in their own way.

In a few weeks, I'll be going back to the military,

and I'm going to take my experience here

as a case manager,

working with refugees to remember the human element.

When I make decisions that can affect policy,

hopefully, to make less refugees.

And I think I can do that,

as long as I remember

to remember the people and not just the data.

(cheers and applause)

With the amount of attention that refugees are getting

in the news and politics, matched with how little

people know about refugees--

who they are, where they come from--

and the reality of resettling in the United States,

it's important to educate people

because everyone has an opinion on it right now.

And whoever's loudest might be heard the most.

And the reality of resettlement in the United States

is very different from what's being portrayed on television.

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