Everyday Heroes— John Young

Published 12:48 am Sunday, April 29, 2012

John Young is easily recognizable as the friendly face behind the camera of local sporting events in Picayune. From Friendship Park events, to high school football and Lady Tide games, the former journalism major and military man pursues his passion in photography, capturing the beautiful moments in life as he works to place the horrific moments of Vietnam behind him.

Young was nominated by Lady Tide Coach Kristi Mitchell, who said, “Mr. John is a retired military gentlemen who does photography as a hobby. He has been with my team taking pictures for over 12 years; some of the girls know him from when they were in community sports at Friendship Park.

“I think he would be a good subject because he has a very interesting background and is full of history. He fought in the Vietnam War and was the leader of a company. He has been flown to England to be a part of a documentary. He has been instrumental in writing books on the war and he volunteers at USM as a teacher in the history department for the Vietnam class. He has also been the guest speaker at numerous events at high schools and colleges. Mr John is a fine man, who is proud to call Picayune home. It might be time for Picayune to recognize their hometown hero. ”

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Young attended University of Minnesota where he studied journalism in 1966 and was a member of the ROTC. The Vietnam war was underway and there was a long history of military service in his family.

“I was knee-deep in college and to tell you the truth, I was bored and wanted adventure. One day I just dropped out of school, enlisted in the Army as an infantryman and told my family that night at dinner. My mother and sister cried but my father was very quiet. Later on, I found out that my father had enlisted three days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when he was around my age. There was nothing he could say,” recalls Young.

As fate would have it, Young’s enlistment coincided with a new experimental Charlie company that was being formed at Ft. Riley.

“I was in the group that was put into a unit, at Ft. Riley, who went through basic, training and deployment together in 1967. We worked extremely well together as a unit, but the downside was that we all grew closer than we realized. I was a unit leader and the exhilaration and pats on the back that came with unit achievement became a heavy stone around my neck when we experienced loss of lives. I felt equally responsible for that and spent decades trying to make sense of it and figure out what I did wrong,” he says.

“The reality is that death is a fact of war. It is random and does not discriminate. It does not make sense and there are no rules to avoid it. It is just a fact.”

Young spent most of his enlistment overseas. He reenlisted after a brief time in the states trying to adjust to civilian life immediately following his tour in Vietnam.

“It was just frustrating how no one wanted to acknowledge my service or experience. It was like my friends lives that were sacrificed in Vietnam didn’t matter. They were amazing people, who we lost, and no one seemed to care. I felt like I had to return to the service. They were the only ones who seemed concerned about our soldiers and what we went through,” he said.

Years later and a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), the Veterans Administration finally had a program to address Young’s diagnosis. With the program came Dr. Leslie Root, who treated him as his therapist.

Dr. Root introduced Young to a History professor at USM named Dr. Andrew Wiest. Dr. Wiest taught a class on Vietnam and wanted to introduce veterans of that war to his class. This introduction was the beginning of a collaboration and a deep bond of friendship, between Young and Wiest, which has spanned a decade and included many trips back to Vietnam. Young also served as consultant for Wiest’s book “The Boys of ‘67” which will be released by Osprey Publishing in September.

USM History Professor and friend, Dr. Wiest, says, “I think he’s a wonderful representative of a very special generation. If you ask me, the Vietnam generation has always received short straw when it came to the war generations. They are always compared to the WWII generation (the Greatest Generation) at their expense.

“John, and the people of his war, probably had the toughest job we ever gave anyone. We sent them off to fight a war that by 1968 we didn’t intend to win. These guys were fighting for a nation that turned against them and that’s a tough job. John was the All American boy. He wasn’t drafted— he went. When he was over there, he wanted to keep young Americans alive and did so at great cost to himself. There is no better definition of hero than that.”

Photography has been another path to recovery for Young. The man who has known more about death than he ever wanted to know, sees it as a way to carry on even after he is gone.

“Photos are an emotional investment. They don’t nearly matter as much when they are just taken as they do a decade later. When I think of people looking at a photo that I have taken and smiling at the memory, it is rewarding. I know that I am partially responsible for bringing that smile to their face and that in some way, we are connected,” said Young.

Lady Tide Coach Mitchell said, “Mr. John is a very special friend to me and has taught me a lot in the years I have known him. He has given me a lifetime of memories of my softball teams since 1999 through pictures and all at no cost. He does not bring a lot of attention to himself and does everything on a voluntary basis. I consider him to be a part of my coaching staff. A game is just not the same without Mr John.”