The North Bend Eagle


Passing time helps vets tell difficult stories

by Nathan Arneal
Published 8/2/17

At Saturday’s USS Forrestal reunion there were laughs, there were stories and there were tears.

Gerald Kennedy came down from the Pilger area to attend the event at the North Bend VFW Hall. He served on the Forrestal from 1971 to 1974. When asked if his time aboard the aircraft carrier left him with good memories, he hesitated.

Forrestal memorabilia“Some of them were,” he said. “Some of them you’d rather not think about.”

Then there was a group of people sitting at a table who never served in a war, but they knew all too well what Kennedy was talking about.

These women supported their husbands and fathers as they watched them suffer through decades of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD was unknown when they were returning from Vietnam in the late ‘60s.

“What my dad said is, when they got back and they’re doing their exit interview or whatever, all they gave you was a Bible and said ‘Good luck,’” JoDee Barnes said.

Her father, James Mckiernan, was a Navy corpsman who served as a medic for Marines on the ground in Vietnam. For most of her life, he dealt with his time in the war with silence.

“I was 35 before my dad even told me he was in the war,” said Barnes, herself an Air Force veteran. “I knew he was in the military, but he never told me he went to war. He didn’t tell me he was a medic. He didn’t tell me he was shot in the chest. I was in complete shock.”

JoDee Barnes’s mother-in-law, Chris Barnes, could relate. Her husband, Norman Barnes, is a member of the North Bend VFW and one of the co-organizers of the Forrestal get-together. His story of surviving the July 29, 1967, fire aboard the Forrestal was featured in last week’s Eagle.

Like Mckiernana, for years Norm Barnes didn’t like to talk about his experience.

“I got little bits and pieces here and there,” Chris Barnes said. “There were many nights I held him and he just blubbered and cried and just opened up. I said, maybe put it into words, maybe that will help you to deal with it, and he started writing.”

Ten years ago Norman Barnes saw a framed Life Magazine cover featuring the Forrestal fire in a diner.

“I was on that ship,” he said.

Someone working in the diner overheard him and told Barnes her uncle died on the Forrestal. She arranged a meeting between Barnes and her parents. The Omaha World-Herald did a story on it. Chris Barnes said that experience is what got Norman to start talking – and writing – about his experiences.

Chris and Norman grew up a block and half apart in Omaha. They didn’t know each other, but they had mutual friends.

“Our friends tried to introduce us for years and I wouldn’t go out with him because I was Catholic and my parents wouldn’t let me go out with a protestant,” Chris said, “so I never met him until after his years of service.”
It took four more decades until she knew the details of his years of service. His writings opened her eyes.


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