By: Lapina Burris, Neighborhood Ambassador
On a cool fall night in October, Paschalville Library was transformed into a platform celebratin service to our country in anticipation of Veterans Day. Veterans living in our community gathered in the basement meeting room to participate in a Story Circle.
Story Circles are presented by the Paschalville Partnership’s Community Catalyst Initiative, a two-year effort led by the Free Library of Philadelphia to engage with residents in the Southwest Philadelphia community around Paschalville Library, at 70th Street and Woodland Avenue. This new venture, begun in late 2018, is made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, whose Community Catalyst Initiative is encouraging institutions across the country to transform how they engage with their communities. The storytelling nonprofit First Person Arts facilitates the Story Circles.
At the October Story Circle, veterans candidly shared their acts of heroism, courage, and compassion as they dined on delicious Caribbean entrees prepared by neighborhood restaurant Jamaica Way, located in Penrose Plaza shopping center. Each veteran was given the opportunity to speak about the good times and adverse times they spent in the military, some of them in combat zones.
Briton Eatmon joined the U.S. Air Force at age 19 and served as a paratrooper in the early 1970s in Vietnam. Nicknamed “GB,” Eatmon said he was a man going in, but a better man in the service. He also spoke movingly of his visits to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. “I am proud to be a part of walking history and book history,” he said.
Al Vitiello, a veteran of the Marine Corps who was deployed to Cambodia in the 1970s, talked about a moment of valor when a fellow soldier was able to hold off an enemy ambush, allowing the troops to retreat to an evacuation center. “It was the most heroic thing I’ve ever seen,” said Vitiello. He now serves as an advocate for veterans, and when asked his reason, he simply stated: “I give back because I survived.”
Bruce Buchanan was sent to Vietnam as a young man, where he mostly saw the aftermath of the fighting. His job was to unload bodies from trucks and load them onto transport planes, which brought them to Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware. “It was casket upon casket upon casket. At 19, you deal with it, you learn from it.” When returning to the U.S., during a layover in Seattle, Buchanan experienced a moment of compassion when a random couple picked up his meal check as a thank you for his service. “That was the nicest thing that anyone had done for me in 18 months,” he said.
Helen Pleasant, who served in the U.S. Air Force and the Pennsylvania and New Jersey National Guards in the 1980s, said she did not serve on the front lines, but found immense solace in the award ceremonies held for service members. Her reasons for joining the service were economic, being a single parent. She served several years and earned an honorable discharge to care for her son, who later in life went on to serve in the Iraq War.
Buchanan encouraged young men and women who might not have a clear career path to spend some time in the military: “Service gives one a sense of responsibility and teaches you how to be an individual in society.” Pleasant, who serves on the Paschalville Partnership’s Resident Consultant Team and had the idea of hosting the Story Circle of veterans, urged community members to thank those who serve our country in the military and to hear their stories, noting, “Veterans often feel unappreciated for their efforts.”