WAUKEGAN – Ronald Mitten leans back casually in his seat and chuckles as his wife, Marilyn, tidies up the table around him, sweeping crumbs efficiently into a crumpled napkin with sharp, practiced strokes.
She leans in close to his face to say something, and they both share a laugh before she heads off to dispose of their trash. Mitten leans over her empty chair to chat with their tablemate while she’s gone.
Mitten and his wife have been married 63 years and “it goes fast,” he said. After being drafted in 1953, Mitten was newly engaged, bidding farewell to his wife-to-be just four days after their engagement as he prepared to ship off for basic training as a recruit in the Army. Once his basic training and combat engineer training were completed, he served as a combat engineer with the 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion in Okinawa. During his time in the service, Mitten helped build runways for the Air Force and operated heavy machinery – “bulldozers and scrapers, things like that” – performing the duties that were asked of him in service of his country.
He returned home safely to his fiancee and they were wed one year after he retired from the service.
Mitten was one of more than 25 veterans who participated in this year’s Lake County Veterans History Project at the Lake County Courthouse on Nov. 11 in Waukegan. Launched by Congress nearly 20 years ago, the nationwide project seeks to preserve U.S. veterans’ personal stories and experiences from their time in the service. The stories are recorded by a court reporter and later archived in the Library of Congress. This is the eighth year Lake County’s 19th Judicial Circuit has participated.
“I think people need to know how courageous these men are and how dedicated they are to their country because they preserve our freedoms,” Mitten’s wife said of the project’s importance. “That’s why they go into the service.”
Veterans from every conflict since World War II attended the Nov. 11 event and enjoyed a breakfast with friends and family who came to support and honor them.
Bob Gorman, an Army veteran, participated in the project three years ago and returned again this year as a representative for the Lake County Veterans and Family Services, a nonprofit organization devoted to supporting veterans and their families. The project is important, he said, because it chronicles the duty and sacrifice of all service members in various fields.
“It’s comforting for us as civilian community members to think of military service as a pilot or an infantryman or somebody who had a direct combat role,” he said, “but it’s good for us to remember that for every person who had direct contact in a firefight or a combat situation, there’s nine others who support that person, who make that person’s service possible. There are no small jobs in the military.”
Lindenhurst resident Chris Kasperski served with the 630th Engineering Company, 7th Engineer Battalion in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012.
“My job was to find roadside bombs over there in Afghanistan,” he said. “I got hurt while I was over there, so I was medically retired.”
Kasperski’s service dog, Lakota, sat quietly at Kasperski’s side during the breakfast, keeping vigilant watch. Kasperski said he appreciated seeing the “camaraderie through all our different generations of veterans” at the event.
“[This project] means a lot to me,” he said. “My family has a lot of veterans in it and I’ve studied their stories, but you never get to hear that firsthand account of it all. So that’s what’s very important to me is that I can actually record my story for posterity so my great-great-grandkids can know what I did.”