Duluth veteran works to honor other veterans despite own disability

John Marshall looks like he was born for one reason and one reason only: to be in the armed forces. He is an average height man, about 5'8” but his biceps are so thick that his shirt sleeves suffocate them.  The sides of his head are so closely shaved you can almost see into the pores.  On the top of his head sits a finely trimmed field of brown hair standing at attention with no stray hairs.  His eyebrows are thick and brown and his mustache is something that Tom Selleck would envy.

Marshall's house perfectly matches the color of Charlie Brown's famous yellow shirt, but that is where the similarities between Marshall and Charlie Brown end.

Inside, you would never guess that a wounded veteran of the Gulf War lived there.  The living room is filled with candles, paintings, and various other decorations lining the walls and shelves.  A picture of the Last Supper hangs above the doorway into the living room.  Two cats quietly slink around the living room as they crawl from couch to couch.

The quaint atmosphere is soon disrupted by the tales and images of war.

“I hate war,” Marshall said. “I think it's the worst of humanity.”

Marshall joined the military in 1988 and was soon stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. Shortly afterward he was shipped to Garlstedt, Germany, where he remained until 1990 when he was alerted he would be going to Saudi Arabia as a part of Operation Desert Sabre.

“It was a kill and destroy mission,” Marshall said. “We decimated the Iraqi forces we came in contact with.”

Marshall served in the Persian Gulf War. On the night of Feb. 27, 1991 Marshall's company, the 41st Infantry, was engaged in the battle of 73 Easting; the largest tank battle since World War II. During the battle Marshall was hit in the back by an enemy round.

“I didn't know if I was paralyzed or not,” Marshall said.  “I could feel hot blood running down my back.”

For this wound, Marshall would be given the Purple Heart, which would make him part of a group of men and women who have been wounded while serving the United States.

Marshall's wound has subsequently required that he take up to 19 different kinds of medication for his nearly 30 different medical conditions, including cancer and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I'm as tough as they come,” Marshall said.

This toughness could be attributed to his childhood and the abuse he used to receive from his mother.

“You get used to the punches, kicks and slaps,” Marshall said.

He was kicked out of his mother's house at age 11 and moved in with his father.

“She made me take my shirt and shoes off and sit across the street until my dad came and picked me up,” Marshall said.

“I lost a lot of friends to drugs and suicide.”  For Marshall, the military was his “saving grace.”

“If I hadn't gone in, I would be dead without a doubt,” Marshall said.

His feelings towards the military after having served have changed because of a struggle with determining his disability.  Originally, Marshall was only considered 20 percent disabled, but because of his PTSD and other medical conditions, this would not be enough because Marshall could no longer work.

“It's like your family turning on you,” Marshall said. “I'm so pissed because I had such a promising career.”

After spending time in the St. Cloud Veteran's Affairs Hospital and lobbying the military, Marshall was later upgraded to 100 percent disability.

Marshall does not work in the traditional sense.  His job is to “serve my God, my fellow man, and my community,” Marshall said.   This means being part of over 30 different organizations including the Minnesota Order of the Purple Heart, the Duluth Honor Guard, the Scottish Rite, Federal Memorial Advisory Board, the American Legion, the VFW and more.

As part of the Duluth Honor Guard, Marshall organizes veteran funerals and may take part in up to five in one day.

On this particular day, Marshall and the Honor Guard are at the Cremation Society of Minnesota in Duluth to celebrate the life of a fellow veteran.  The ceremony takes place in the parking lot behind the building.  15 members of the Honor Guard, including Marshall are in attendance, each in green uniforms with rifles fitted along the sides of their bodies.

As the procession begins, the Guards form a line across the parking lot facing the family.  One of the guard members slides out of the formation and presses play on a stereo behind the line of uniformed guards.  The ceremonial military song Taps rings out through the parking lot and the Honor Guard salutes the fallen soldier.

After the song ends, the guards prepare their rifles and fire three rounds of shots into the air.

“It's a long day,” Marshall said. “It's not something I take lightly.”

It is difficult to understand why Marshall chooses to continue to serve these military organizations even after he was wronged by them after his time in the Army.

“All the cliches aren't cliché to me,” Marshall said. “We're compelled to do what we do through our experiences.”

To Marshall, this means doing everything he can to serve veterans.

Andy Anderson, a member of the Honor guard and friend of Marshall's puts a different spin on the reason Marshall does what he does.

“We think he's crazy,” Anderson said. “He can't ever say no.”

Lance Meyer, a member of the Honor Guard, sees Marshall as an inspiration and the reason that the Duluth Honor guard is “one of the best.”

“He's very dedicated, hardworking, and he believes in his men,” Meyer said.

Although Marshall struggles with his health and has dozens of responsibilities under his belt, Marshall shows no signs of slowing down.

Marshall describes himself as an extremist when it comes to his work ethic.  For him, it's go big or go home.

“I feel like shit everyday,” Marshall said. “ But I don't quit things, it's too easy to quit.”

Marshall's wounds make him a member of Chapter 56 of the Minnesota Order of the Purple Heart, who meet the last Monday of every month at Perkins restaurant in Duluth, Minn.  There are 84 current members of Chapter 56, although there are only about 15 at this meeting.

Marshall cannot be in attendance at this meeting because he has another veteran-related conflict.

A group of men gather around a large table in the back room, most all of them wearing some sort of apparel proclaiming they are a veteran.  They sit around the table and chat as they sip their coffee and water.

As more men arrive for the meeting, the noise level increases.

The men continue their conversations for longer than might be normal.  The scene resembles a classroom missing its teacher for the first 10 minutes of class.  Knowing Marshall, it seems that he is the one who gets everyone focused and down to business, and his absence might be the reason for this extended social time.

Soon, the conversation effortlessly shifts to the stories of how each of them had been wounded.  The stories they tell sound as if they are straight out of a video game, but such a thing could not be captured by an entertainment device.

As one man talks about his wound, he proclaims “it's a beautiful scar.”

This statement seems to resonate with all the men at the table.  They are proud to have served and proud to have been wounded for their country.  Their wounds serve as a permanent badge of honor and as a bond to each of the other men at the table.

Brad Bennett serves as the commander of local Duluth Chapter 56.  Bennett served as a Sergeant in the United States Marine Corp in Vietnam and the host of Sound Off on 710 am WDSM radio.

Bennett was wounded on Jan. 12, 1968.  He was shot in the shoulder by a round from an enemy AK-47.  Bennett was wounded again, this time by shrapnel.  He refers to this wound as his “wah-wah wound.”

Soon the rest of the men begin going around the table introducing themselves and giving a “brief” history of their experiences.  The stories they tell now are definite fractions of what they could be, but being that it's already half an hour into the meeting, they keep them short.

Going around the table, it's like a starting line-up of war.

Dwayne Booker: World War II, Korean War, Marine Corps, 1949, 1950

James Vandenheuval: Iraq, 2003-2004

Brad Bennet: Vietnam, Marine Corps, 1968

Dick Lewmeyer: Vietnam, Army, 1965

Bruce Solem: Vietnam, Army, 1969

And the line-up continues.  Each man states his name and their experience.  Each man proud of what they have done in the name of their country.

Often times, when people think of reliving war stories they assume that they would be hard to talk about.  For these men, it feels as if they actually enjoyed telling their stories.

Even though these men only meet once a month, it feels as if they are around each other every day.

“I think we share a lot closer bond than other veterans,” Bennett said.

This is evident as they continue to tell their stories.  When one man is talking, all eyes are on him, intently listening.  They show a respect for each other that is hard to describe.  Many of the men were involved in the same wars, but none of them served in the same unit, but you would never guess it.  Professional sports teams pay hundreds of millions of dollars to try and find chemistry like this.

“We were fighting for each other,” Bennett said.

All of the men sitting around the table have different stories, are different ages, have different friends and families, but each of them carries the Purple Heart.  That one small pin brings them together month after month to the same back room of the same Perkins at the same time.  But that small pin represents something so much bigger.  It represents their experiences that only those who have been there can realize.

Each of these men can say they've taken a bullet for this country.  They have the “beautiful scars” to prove it.

Like all of these men, Marshall's scars are permanent but they will not hinder him.  His struggles with the Army will not be forgotten, but this does not keep him from doing what he does.

“I could be pissed off at the world, I could hate everything, I choose not to,” Marshall said. “When I die, I want people to say I was a good man.”


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