When Ottis Livingston accepted my handshake and thanks for his Army service during the Korean War, I couldn’t have been more humbled after interviewing him for a story.
Livingston, 88, of Decatur, was at the Veteran’s Assistance Commission office in the Macon County Office Building on Aug. 17 to receive a replacement for the Combat Medic badge he lost many years ago after returning from the war. For a moment, it seemed, his mind traveled back more than six decades as he looked at the badge amid applause.
Reporters often must separate themselves from the events they cover, but how could I not applaud? It was something special to watch this man who has given so much of his life to helping others, first in the military and later as a jail minister, be the recipient of such affection. A tear rolled down his cheek as he took it all in.
Each veteran is an individual to be considered in their own way. Some are unwilling or unable to speak of their time in combat. Others share their stories and accounts of what they saw, their own way of coping. The ceremony was nice; his memories would paint a picture.
I hesitated, asking Livingston’s wife, Honeylee, if he would want to talk about his time in Korea. “Oh, yes. Just go ask him and get him started,” she assured me with a smile as she ushered me toward him. “Ottis, Ottis,” she said, getting his attention. “He would like you to talk about Korea.”
He looked at me from his wheelchair, and I stepped forward. After a few basic queries about his service (private first class, 15th Medical Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division), I asked where in Korea he remembered being in the winter of 1951. The winters of Korea are legendary, often 50 degrees below zero or worse. He recalled the cold, if not precisely where, but for good reason.
“"You didn't know exactly where you were because everything was blown up,” he said.
“In fact I still think about the things I saw. The dead bodies I had to handle. You never forget it,” he continued. “I would think about their families back home. It worked on me for a long time. I have learned to live with it and just glad I made it."
He recalled that no one could get used to the frigid cold, only learn to survive with no shelter amid the barren landscape, where many battles were named for nondescript hill numbers or the carnage they left behind, such as Bloody Ridge or Pork Chop Hill.
I could have listened to Ottis for hours, if I had had the time before needing to head back the Herald & Review and write a story. I was simply fortunate to spend a few minutes of my day with this man, thanks to the selfless work of others.
The members of Help for Heroes and the Veteran’s Assistance Commission were so happy to help him. Ayn Owens of Help for Heroes and Kathie Powless, the commission superintendent, were all smiles as they told Ottis how much he has meant to the community, the number of lives he had touched. Many friends, especially from the sheriff’s office, attended. It was their teamwork that helped surprise Ottis with his new badge, and they were so sincerely delighted.
Ottis’ son, Bishop G.E. Livingston of Life Changers Church, reminded that his father’s generation was rarely thanked for their service in the Korean War, often called the “Forgotten War.” There were no parades when they came home, even after the cease fire in 1953.
To grasp Ottis Livingston’s hand at the end of the interview was, for me, to share a moment with someone I could never thank enough and to touch someone who had been there, seen so much and yet was able to live a life in service to humanity, which he had seen at its worst in war.
His handshake was a reassuringly firm, gracious grip. He said he was grateful so many people had thought enough of him to attend the ceremony.
It was my honor to be there.
Have an opportunity to thank a veteran? Grasp it.
Contact John Reidy at (217) 421-6973. Follow him on Twitter: @jsreidy2099