From a Purple Heart recipient who fought in Okinawa in 1945 to one of the first WAVES, hundreds of Brazos Valley veterans have had their stories told by Bill Youngkin.
Every week for several years, Younkin has interviewed and submitted the accounts of veterans from the area to The Eagle. The tradition began in the late 2000s when Youngkin reached out on behalf of the Brazos Valley Veterans Memorial Board, of which he is a member.
Youngkin is a Vietnam veteran known around the community as the owner of Bryan law firm Youngkin & Associates and is a past president of Texas A&M’s Association of Former Students. The former yell leader recently shared his experience telling the stories of local veterans with The Eagle. The transcript of this conversation is featured below and has been amended for space and clarity.
Q: Walk me through when and why you started telling the stories of local veterans?
A: I pitched the idea to the [Brazos Valley Veterans Memorial Board] that we provide stories of our WWII veterans before they passed away and ask The Eagle to donate some space, and they said, “Well, go for it. See what you can do. You need to find the veterans” — I said, “I can do that” — and “you need to talk to The Eagle.” Donnis Baggett was the publisher at that time, so I explained all of this to Donnis. And they said this is something the paper might be willing to do, but they kept their options open to turn us down depending on the quality of the story. So, I contacted some veterans and I started off videoing their interviews. The first ones I chose were basically professors.
I had a young lady who was with the Arts Council who was a journalism major. She was going to provide the story — look at the video of the interview, put the story together, and then submit it to the paper. Well, she did the first story, had boyfriend problems and left town...I’d written a lot of legal pleadings and stuff like that, but I started writing the stories myself.
I wanted to make sure it was their story, so other than an introductory paragraph or a connecting sentence or something like that, it’s pretty much quotations. It’s their words, it’s their story. Donnis critiqued every one ... We got up to the point where they just said, “Send it in. It fits; it works, and it’s something we’re proud to be part of as a member of the community.” So that’s how it is. Three hundred and some odd weekends later, they continue to print them, and I continue to write them.
Q: Looking back on all of these interviews, do any moments particularly stand out?
A: I’ve just been blown away by some of these stories. Most of them have never talked about it, but when they see [other] stories, they realize these are the stories of the guys and they are told as they are told — not with my opinion in there. Then they became more accessible. And I always at the bottom of the story in the paper put, “If you know anyone who is a WWII, Korean, or Vietnam veteran, let me know.” And I have people who call me and say, “You need to talk to my granddad” or, “Uou need to talk to my neighbor Joe.”
Now some I knew. Probably the first 10 or 15 were members of my class. I told their stories, because I knew them well and we talked from time to time. I had no idea the depth of their stories until I got into it. [Some interviews] have just been remarkable memories for me. To get to hear these stories first hand, I’ve been just so impressed by the character and the courage of people in my community, and I continue to just be blown away by the citizens we have in our community.
The thing I’ve found with WWII particularly is whatever happened in WWII, we’ve got someone in this community who was there and can tell you a portion of what was going on. And the only battle from WWII I think where I’ve not had someone tell me the story of is Guadalcanal. I knew a veteran who was there, but he died before we started these stories. That’s the only battle I know of that we’ve not done from WWII.
Q: What do you get out of interview in these veterans?
A: If you could meet these people, I kid you not, it’s so heartwarming and humbling to hear them and to be in their presence. I mean, you get down to basics. There are things I don’t put in the paper. For some of them, it absolutely comes from the heart. Sometimes there are tears and strong emotions. I try to bring that across as clearly as I can in the articles — the emotion of the situation — but that’s not always easy to do.
Q: What do you hope readers get out of their stories?
A: This person they may maybe have known all their life should be treated with a little more respect. There was one particular senior in the [Texas A&M Corps of Cadets] whose grandfather told his story. He said, “I had no idea my granddad did this.” I said you better hope you have some of the same genes — that he’s passed those on. He said, “I hope I do.”
Having a standard to live up to is a good thing. Those guys made a standard to look up to.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share with readers this Veterans Day?
A: What I’d love to do is put together all these stories in book. If people could just read what the history of our country was through the memories of people in this community and just to realize, “How do I stack up?” If they read that and they know something about these individuals, I think it will make them into better citizens. It makes me a lot better citizen than I was before, and I’m proud to be associated with these people. And I look forward to the interviews I haven’t done.