Veterans’ words lay bare war in Downtown Pittsburgh exhibit
On an otherwise nondescript street corner Downtown, the voices of local military personnel describe in vivid detail the horror, triumph and mystery of war.
“Nobody ever recovers from going,” says the voice of Army veteran Michael Flournoy, who fought in Vietnam. “It’s just raw, sheer, horrible pain. You know that bothers them, but that’s part of it, their responsibility. That’s the price they pay for going into the military and defending their country.”
Flournoy’s voice is part of an exhibit by PNC Bank that presents the oral histories of Western Pennsylvania veterans and military supporters inside PNC’s Legacy Building at the corner of Liberty Avenue and Market Street.
Twelve cords, each 10 feet long, hang from the ceiling. Visitors press a button on a “sound stick” at the end of each cord, hold it to their ears, and listen to the stories.
“There are a number of questions that I have no answers for,” says Fritz Ottenheimer, whose family smuggled hundreds of Jews from Austria and Germany into Switzerland before fleeing to the United States in 1939.
“When Hitler came to power, 65 million Germans did not become 65 million murderers; they became 65 million bystanders,” says Ottenheimer, who later joined the Army’s military police. “How is it possible that millions of people who knew damn well what was going on chose not to do anything about it? That’s one thing I will never understand.”
Lt. Col. Michele Papakie, an inspector general with the National Guard, ran a sexual assault prevention program in Afghanistan. Like so many other veterans, she struggled to adjust to civilian life upon her return.
“I ended up in my uniform for days because it was my comfort zone,” she says. “I kept reaching for my weapon that wasn’t there. You get home and you’re like, ‘You’re breathing my air,’ you know? ‘Why are you breathing my air? I need some space. Go away.’
“I didn’t expect that. I don’t know, it’s a really strange thing.”
Some veterans share stories of breaking down barriers.
Florence Shutsy Reynolds was a member of the Women Air Force Service Pilots during World War II, the first women in the country’s history to fly military aircraft.
After a short ceremony Thursday to open the exhibit, she said her passion for flying came early.
“When I was a kid and an airplane flew over, that was a big event,” said Reynolds, 91, of Connellsville. “I always wanted to fly. I was fascinated with flight. I watched the birds fly and loved it.”
Livingstone Johnson, an Air Force veteran of the Korean War, briefly interrupted the ceremony to address the PNC officials and an audience of about 30 people.
Johnson, 86, of O’Hara rose from his chair with the help of his cane. He thanked PNC for including him in the memorial but acknowledged that such honors make him uncomfortable.
He recalled receiving a phone call from Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in 1962, when officials were preparing to induct the first class into its Hall of Valor. They asked whether Johnson, a retired Common Pleas Court judge, would be included. He declined.
When his mother asked him why, Johnson replied, “Because I got back alive. But Oliver is still buried in a cemetery in Luxembourg.”
Johnson’s brother, Oliver Morris Johnson, was 21 when he was killed in World War II while guarding a command post.
“Oliver got a Purple Heart and he didn’t even know it,” Johnson said. “His Purple Heart was all the award I ever needed.”
Also featured in the exhibit: Mike Hepler, an Army veteran who fought in Vietnam; Monica Orluk, president and COO of Operation Troop Appreciation; Tom Fitzgerald, former Allegheny County police chief who was an Army medic in Vietnam; Kyle Steffen, an Army Airborne infantryman who served in Afghanistan; Ed Stevens, a staff sergeant and Army machine gun squad leader in Korea; Jessica Wright, the first female helicopter pilot in the National Guard; and Devlin Robinson, who joined the Marines months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
The exhibit at PNC’s Pittsburgh Legacy Building opens Tuesday, on Veterans Day. It is free to the public weekdays, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or [email protected].