James Lednicky, a student at Arizona State University, joined the Veterans Heritage Project because he wanted to learn more about the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform. 

He was matched with a Vietnam veteran, retired Lt. Col. Fred Shirley, and was tasked with documenting Shirley’s story.  

Lednicky says he was a little nervous about interviewing Shirley, but “as soon as Fred and I got talking, we really just had a conversation about his time in the military, and it was just a great conversation.”

Lednicky plans to serve in the military himself and says his conversations with Shirley have influenced how he hopes to one day lead as a Marine. 

The way in which Shirley led with “humility” is “something that really struck me,” Lednicky says.  

The way Shirley looked after “those that serve under [him] … it makes me want to lead my Marines the same way, to care about them deeply, and to let them know that I care, like Fred did,” he says. 

Lednicky and Shirley join “The Daily Signal Podcast” to share their experience in the Veterans Heritage Project and how we can all care for our veterans. 

We also cover these stories:

  • Inflation rates have hit a new 30-year record high.
  • The American Medical Association’s recently released “Advancing Health Equity” guide comes under fire.
  • America’s most elite private K-12 schools are teaching critical race theory, according to a new study by CriticalRace.org, founded by Cornell law professor William Jacobson. 

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Virginia Allen: Happy Veterans Day. Today, it is my honor to welcome to the show Vietnam veteran Fred Shirley and Arizona State University student Jim Lednicky. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for being here today.

Jim Lednicky: Thanks for having us.

Allen: Well, Jim, I would love to start with you. You met Mr. Shirley through a really unique program called Veterans Heritage Project. What is that? What is the Veterans Heritage Project?

Lednicky: Veterans Heritage Project is meant to connect students with veterans. So it’s in middle schools, high schools, and colleges in Arizona and across the country.

Basically what it is, is students in the program are presented with the opportunity to interview veterans about their military service, and then after the interview process, the students write and edit the stories that they wrote about their service, and then those are compiled each year and published in a book called “Since You Asked.” “Since You Asked,” along with the video interviews, is archived at the Library of Congress.

Allen: That’s so wonderful. I have a copy from a couple years ago of one of those books. “Since You Asked,” it really is a beautiful, essentially, work of art and piece of history. All of these stories of veterans’ lives so beautifully told by, like you say, high schoolers, middle schoolers, college students.

So Jim, you were matched with Mr. Shirley to tell his story. How many times did you-all meet for interviews and to discuss the story?

Lednicky: We did one initial interview that was probably two and a half to three hours long. … It was long, but we had a lot of time to cover because Fred served for a very long time in the Army, and so that was our initial contact.

I interviewed him, went through the process of writing his story. He actually sent me his “After Action Report” from the Tet Offensive that he wrote after he got back from Vietnam, and that was really helpful.

So I wrote this story over the course of about three weeks to a month, and then I sent Fred a copy of it. He reviewed it, we went back and forth quite a bit to fix any mistakes and hammer out all the details to make sure that it was accurate to his service and his time in the military. We talked a lot during that time and I got to know Fred pretty well throughout that time.

Allen: So how long have you all known each other now?

Lednicky: Let’s see. We did the interview, Fred, maybe a year ago, I think.

Fred Shirley: Yeah, it was before Christmas and we really weren’t able to meet each other face to face because of COVID.

Allen: Yeah, no, that makes sense. Well, Mr. Shirley, you served in the U.S. Army for over 20 years, from 1962 to 1983. What was it like for you to sit down with a student, answer their many questions about your life and military service, and ultimately, to trust Jim to write your story?

Shirley: Well, one thing good about Jim is that he’s going into the Marine Corps when he graduates from college. So I was being interviewed by someone who was very interested in the military.

He was just doing more than interviewing me. I think he was trying to pick my brain to see what it was like to be a platoon leader, a company commander, and he was very good at getting that information out of me on what it takes to be a leader of, in his case, Marines.

Allen: Jim, were you apprehensive that first time that you sat down with Mr. Shirley for the interview?

Lednicky: I don’t think I was apprehensive, but I definitely, before every interview, I get a little nervous because you never know what to expect. Every interview’s unique and different and so, it’s never the same experience. So I get a little nervous beforehand, but it might be understandable. But as soon as Fred and I got talking, we really just had a conversation about his time in the military, and it was just a great conversation and it was really good.

Allen: Mr. Shirley, what do you think of the piece that Jim wrote? It’s nine pages in total. It tells so much of your background and your experience in Germany and Vietnam and the U.S. What do you think of the story?

Shirley: Well, I think he did fantastic. I didn’t know I had done all those things, and I think it was a big help that he had a copy of the After Action Report during the Tet Offensive in 1968 in Vietnam that I wrote. That was a big help, I think, to him because, and to me, because I’ve forgotten a lot of the details of those three months, so I emailed him a copy of it and he has it.

Allen: So what was it like to sit down and read a story about your own life?

Shirley: Well, I had a little advantage on this interview for probably 15 years. I was a volunteer speaker for the Joe Foss Institute. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Joe Foss Institute, but in some ways, it’s similar to your organization.

But Joe Foss was a Medal of Honor recipient in World War II and the Battle of Guadalcanal. He lived here in Scottsdale, Arizona, in his later life. And prior to his death, he and his wife, they decided that they felt that, as he traveled around the country, that young people didn’t have very much patriotism, so he started the Joe Foss Institute.

First, it was just combat veterans, and then it became veterans. We’d go out and speak to students from kindergarten through high school. So I volunteered for the program, and like I say, I talked to probably about 40,000 students over that period of time here in the Phoenix, Arizona, area.

So I told my story more than once. Depending on the group, it was a little different. The most inquisitive group were the kindergartners and the seniors in high school were probably the least inquisitive.

Allen: Oh, that’s sad to hear. Well, what was the reason, Mr. Shirley, that you first decided that you wanted to serve your country in the military?

Shirley: Well, I was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Maryland, just outside of D.C. While I was in high school, I thought I might want to go to the Naval Academy, which was only about 35 miles up the road from my house where I grew up.

So I went, going up there to participate in the physical, and I found out I was colorblind. Well, they don’t really like colorblind naval officers because of all the signals, etc., with the ships, etc., so that was out of the picture.

Though I thought something of West Point, I was offered a football scholarship to the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. So I went there four years, lettered in football three years, and I was commissioned the second lieutenant in armor in June of 1962. And Veterans Day, that’s coming up, is meaningful to me for more reasons than one, but one of the most important is that on Nov. 11, 1962, I entered active duty in Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Allen: Excellent. Well, thank you for your service and especially this Veterans Day, that is a special memory all these years later. Jim, I would love to ask you to read just a portion of the story that you have written about Mr. Shirley, if you would.

Lednicky: Perfect.

Fred was activated on November 11th, 1962, which is why Veterans Day holds special significance for him. The Army sent him to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to the U.S. Army Armor Officer Basic Course. The officers sent to Fort Knox underwent eight weeks of basic training. Fred graduated from the course in January of 1963.

In February, Fred was sent to Germany to join 2nd Squadron, 3rd Cavalry, known as the Brave Rifles. He boarded a World War II-era Liberty ship in Brooklyn, New York, which stopped in England to drop off Navy personnel before landing in Bremerhaven, Germany. From Bremerhaven, he took a train to Kaiserslautern, where he took command of the 30-some men of 3rd Platoon, Troop E.

Allen: Excellent. Thank you so much. And it is like I said, it’s an excellent story. Nine pages in total. That’s no easy feat to capture essentially 20 years of someone’s life in one story. Jim, as you were writing the story, as you were doing the interviews with Mr. Shirley, what was something that impacted you, that stood out to you about his story?

Lednicky: I think the thing that stood out to me about talking with Fred, about his story, is just how humble he was about the whole thing.

Fred is someone who has a lot to be proud of, but he treats it with such humility. He doesn’t see it in any other way than him serving his country. That’s what he did. He did his job, and he did to the best of his ability. He’s not one to boast about it, and he’s not one to tell you about it like he did here unless you ask him about some of those details.

So I think Fred’s humility, even though he’s accomplished so much in his time in the military and his time after, just stood out to me more than anything, and I think it showed me that great officers need to be extremely humble.

Allen: As Mr. Shirley mentioned, you are now headed for the Marines. Has hearing his story impacted the way that you want to lead in your military service?

Lednicky: Yes, it has. As I just mentioned, leading with humility is something that really struck me about Fred and also, really caring for those that serve under you because it is a brotherhood and sisterhood. And really knowing about, in his case, his troopers, and knowing about their lives, knowing who they were, and really caring for them as a family, that really stood out to me and it makes me want to lead my Marines the same way, to care about them deeply and to let them know that I care, like Fred did.

Allen: Mr. Shirley, why do you think that it’s so important for students, people like Jim, to be sitting down with veterans and to be hearing your stories?

Shirley: Well, when I started with the Joe Foss Institute, one of the things I always mentioned to some of the older young men and women that I talked to, that if they had somebody in their family that had served still in World War II—there would be a few of the students that would have relatives who were World War II vets and in Korea, Vietnam, on and on—I told them that so many of the stories had been lost and [what] they could do for their family heritage would be to interview their great-grandfather, or great-uncle, or whoever it might be—now would be an aunt and an uncle since there are far more women there in the military than there were when I served.

I made a point to tell them and explain to them the importance of interviewing family members and tape record it so that they would have it to pass on to their children someday.

So when Jim asked me would I be willing to do this, I could hardly say no, because for 15 years, I talked to young people and asked them the same question, to please interview family members or a neighbor—that might be your next-door neighbor or the neighbor across the street.

Allen: I think that’s such an excellent message and such a good reminder this Veterans Day to be asking those questions. Mr. Shirley, what advice would you give to anyone who’s sitting down with a neighbor, with a family member, with a grandfather, to ask the questions about their military service? What are some of the best questions that Jim asked you that you think would be valuable for us to be asking?

Shirley: I think, No. 1, you’ve got to realize that for many people, military, ex-military, or even if they’re on active duty, it’s very difficult for most to tell their story, especially if they were in combat. And there’s an awful lot that they would be very reluctant probably to say to you. You might have to work a little harder to get it out of them.

I’m sure you’ve heard of PTSD, and most of all who served in combat suffer from PTSD in one form or another. So you have to be aware of that when you talk to these veterans, male and female, and then slowly ask the questions that Jim did: Where did you grow up? What did you do as a kid? When did you decide to go into the military? What was the event? So many signed up to go in after 9/11, just hundreds and hundreds of people signed up then. And then find out what type of units they were in. What was their rank? What job did they do?

The military person that they’re interviewing will slowly gain your trust and you can write an amazing story. And at the end, they’ll be very happy you did because there is something now that they can pass on to members of their family that’ll just go down through many, many generations.

Allen: That’s wonderful, thank you. I love that. Jim, for you, as a student, why do you think that it’s so important to be sitting down with veterans? What is your challenge to young people to think about asking these questions?

Lednicky: I think that young people really need to understand that freedom isn’t free, to use that cliché. The freedoms that we enjoy today are a direct result of people like Fred who went and served their country and those who serve their country in combat, and I think that’s lost on a lot of young people today.

History in general is something that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. We’ve forgotten about American history and the history of our service members. And I think that looking at the Korean War, for example, the Forgotten War, tens of thousands of Americans died over there, securing freedom, and I think if you asked most young people today, they wouldn’t be able to point out Korea on a map, and they probably wouldn’t even be able to tell you why we were there.

I think it’s important for students to connect with veterans, additionally, to see the things that they read in their textbooks are true and to really gain a personal connection to it. Because even before I started with Veterans Heritage Project, I’d read about a lot of the conflicts in textbooks or seen it on TV, but I didn’t have a personal connection to it, and until you have a personal connection to something, it’s hard to really grasp the reality of it and the gravity of war.

Allen: I think that’s so true. Well, the Veterans Heritage Project has clubs and programs in schools all over Arizona. They’re working on expanding to even more states. So if you want to find out more, all of our listeners want to find out more, and learn how you can get involved and support their work, you can visit veteransheritage.org. But Jim, Mr. Shirley, thank you-all so much for your time today. We really, really appreciate it.

Lednicky: Thanks for having us.

Allen: Yes. And Mr. Shirley, thank you on this Veterans Day for your service and have a very happy Veterans Day.

Shirley: Thank you very, very much.

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