VETS OF AMERICA #1 — John J. Flynn, Jr. Gunnery Sergeant Ret.
83-year-old American veteran. Twenty-two years served in the Marine Corp. Active combat in Vietnam and Korean wars. Retiring rank of Gunnery Sergeant. Decorated war hero. Friends call him “Gunny”.
Friday, 4 March 2016
On the date of our first scheduled interview, retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant John Flynn wasn’t able to wake up that morning, or at all that day. He does that sometimes. When we finally meet, it is in the darkened living room of his North Hollywood apartment, where his hospital bed is the central feature. The old Marine is very sick, but that’s not how he likes to think of it.
Flynn admits, however, that he would count this moment as the “most challenging” time of his life. Apparently Vietnam and North Korea have got nothing on this vet’s current battle.
“I am healing things in my body right now. …I thought I was going to die, but I’m not done living yet. I’ve got more air to breathe.” I observe Flynn’s slow, labored breaths. Panic-inducing in their insufficiency. Flynn is “healing” a collapsed lung, among other taxing health conditions.
“I could have died these last eight months,” Flynn whispers. His health has been failing, which he attributes to complications from injuries he sustained during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
“I could have died, and that would have been OK.” Would have been.
“What’s changed your mind?” I ask him.
“Well,” he says, gazing seriously at the ceiling, “I had a spiritual experience.”
“Are you a religious person?”
“No. But I am spiritual. Very spiritual. I’m 43 years sober, you see…” Finally John looks down from the ceiling at me, and he trails off.
Twenty-two years a Marine. Forty-three years sober. There are so many stories in this man. It’s my job to uncover them, but this isn’t proving to be a simple task in Gy.Sgt. Flynn’s case. We talk for a while and I can see him growing weary, but we haven’t even touched on the intended topic of my visit yet. A number of times, I entice Flynn to tell me anything at all about the Marines. He ponders.
I offer up some topics I’d like to discuss, to which I receive the response generally, “Yes, well, that’s a good question there. …I’ll have to think about that.”
John’s clever, rock-steady wife Margaret (who had warned me I might have little luck getting John to talk about his military service, even though he asked to be interviewed for Vets) comes to my rescue, handing me a laminated newspaper clipping with his picture on it. The article on the clipping details John’s reception of the Bronze star for “Meritorious Service” during the Korean war.
I ask John to tell me about the circumstances in combat that earned him this award. After a long moment of contemplation, he tells me it involved a tank that hit a land mine in enemy territory.
He recalls an earth-shattering explosion. Flynn emerged from his company’s tank to find that it was off it’s track and could not move forward.
“Were you injured while this was happening?”
“Injured? Oh, yes, yeah a little bit.” He does not elaborate.
“Did you save the tank?”
All while under enemy fire, Flynn helped the driver to get the tank back on its track and out of the battle zone.
“Yeah, we saved the tank.”
Flynn’s courageous actions not only saved the tank, but also saved the lives of his entire company within it.
And he has nothing more to say about the event.
I can see him remembering, his eyes fixed in the distance. I want to ask him what it looked like, what it smelled like, more. But it’s too much. That’s all he can say.
The truth is, decorated war hero Gunnery Sergeant John Flynn really doesn’t want to talk about the war. It takes too much. He is weary.
He does want to talk about his lovely wife Margaret, his little dog Cotton, or the big fat cat whose name he can’t quite remember at the moment. He’d even like to talk about his stint as a Hollywood actor in the 1970’s and 80’s.
I listen. Only a couple of minutes until he can say no more. There are so many stories in this man. I fear that’s where they’ll stay under my charge. In him. I haven’t the skill to draw them out. Perhaps he simply does not have the energy left to release them. “Gunny” Flynn’s war stories wander hazily across his memory. I think many of them mercifully hide themselves among the reeds of his mind that have grown tall with time.
*** *** ***
When Flynn said goodbye to me that day, he meant it. It took him nearly three full minutes to extract his gnarled hands from under his bedcovers so that he could squeeze mine.
“You’ve got a lot of love in you, I can see that here. God bless you,” he said, with a sense of finality I tried not to comprehend.
One week later, Gunnery Sergeant Flynn stopped healing his old war wounds. The decorated American veteran, thespian, and spiritual lover John “Gunny” Flynn passed away in his home early in the morning on Sunday, the 13th of March, 2016 — Margaret, Cotton, and the nameless cat by his side.