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MY HERO: How a WWII Combat Veteran Inspired His Nephew in Iraq

Fred Vines was drafted in 1944. Six decades later, his nephew Brian fought in Iraq

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Jessie Newell/Caregiver Magazine

It was only after Brian Vines came back from combat in Iraq that he and his World War II veteran uncle Fred Vines truly connected. 

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Fred, now 96, presented Brian, a former Green Beret, with a Japanese flag that Fred had captured in 1945. The artifact symbolizes the bond between them.

“All of a sudden, we had something in common,” Brian, now 59, told AARP Veteran Report. “He began to open up — not only about his own service in the Philippines, of fighting the Japanese, but his battles after that dealing with severe PTSD.” 

Brian retired in 2012 as a full-bird colonel after 28 years and deployments during the Gulf War and two combat tours in Iraq. Fred fought with the 40th Infantry Division as a 30-caliber machine gunner after being drafted from high school in September 1944.

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“I was a pretty good shot already,” Fred told AARP Veteran Report, noting that as a kid the family depended on him to hunt for food like squirrels and rabbits. Initially, it felt that his 30-day journey to the Philippines was the worst he would face.

“I was seasick all the way,” he said. “The first day nearly everybody was sick — everybody would upchuck. We’d have to hose the deck down twice a day so you could walk on it. That deck also was where soldiers slept, in their clothes, because the fans below were not working.

But then came combat as he fought the Japanese on the island of Mindanao.“I saw people get killed and get wounded and so forth, and that bothered me and still does at times,” he told KOKH, a television station in Oklahoma City.

Fred captured the flag and was awarded a Bronze Star with a “V” valor device for his heroism. He was part of the American force preparing to invade Honshu, the main island of Japan, when President Harry Truman brought an end to the war. “I always thank him for the OK’ing of the dropping of the atomic bomb. It saved a lot of lives.” Fred told KOKH.

He returned home to finish one semester of high school, meeting his future wife, Billie, on the school bus. They had been married for 66 years when she died in 2016.

All three of Fred’s brothers served in the military. The youngest, James — Brian’s father — served in Korea. The family legacy is what inspired Brian to join the Army. “I knew early on that’s what I wanted to do to honor them,” Brian said. 

Even though service was understood, it wasn’t talked about. Those talks began once Brian had returned from war in Iraq. Those talks have helped Brian, but also his wife, Natalie, also a soldier, who sustained a traumatic brain injury in an explosion in Mosul, Iraq, in 2009. Her injury and associated trauma necessitated a full-time caregiver — a role that Brian embraced.

Fred believes that combat is an experience that unifies soldiers across generations. “Most people that weren’t involved, “you can’t make them understand how it actually was,” he told KOKH. “Sometimes people think you’re bragging. The things you did and the things you saw, you didn't really want to talk about them all that much.”

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The 96-year-old, who lives near Shawnee, Oklahoma, still cuts his own grass and has planted potatoes every year since 1949.

Last May, Brian, who lives in The Villages, Florida, convinced Fred to take an Honor Flight with a group of veterans from Oklahoma to see the military monuments Washington D.C.

On that flight, Brian Vines introduced his uncle over the loudspeaker: “My Uncle Fred is my hero.”

Brian later reflected: “Fred has an amazing story of sacrifice and being humble and being selfless that inspired the other people on the airplane.”

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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