'How lucky you are to survive'

Historical Society honors Forest Park veterans

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Feb. 16 is Mike Mohr's birthday. It will also mark 50 years that he's been out of the army.

"Those last 50 years have gone by so quickly," Mohr said. "It's incredible."

But the memories will always be part of him.

"I always think back of my time in the army, and good friends that I lost while being in combat. It makes you realize sometimes how lucky you are to survive. Being in Vietnam, you never knew if you were going to see tomorrow, and then you lost people who are very close to you. It's a really tough, tough ordeal."

Mohr, president of Mohr Oil, with family ties in town going back to the 1800s, worries that people today, especially younger people, don't really know or understand what that's like.

"The younger generation takes it for granted, everything that it takes to keep our freedom and our democracy," Mohr said.

In 2017, Historical Society of Forest Park board member Nancy Cavaretta spearheaded an oral history project, the goal being to record the stories of Forest Park veterans. Preserve them. Save them. Share them.

Ensure that more people understood what it means to have served our country in the armed forces.

The board sought veterans willing to be interviewed on tape. The project, which includes recordings of the interviews and photos, is available online at forestparkhistory.org/our-neighbors-our-heroes.html. Non-objectively speaking, it's a pretty amazing record of the service of Forest Park veterans and the legacy they have created.

For Veterans Day 2020, the Historical Society created banners featuring several Forest Park veterans and hung them on the soccer fields at the park district. The banners, sponsored by Mohr, face Harrison Street, so people walking and driving by can see them.

Cliff Leber, who also served in Vietnam, is featured on a banner. In the photo, he's holding a monkey.

"It was one of our pet monkeys that wandered around camp," Leber said.

When he was drafted, he went without question. "My country called, and so I went," he said.

Like Mohr, he worries young people today don't know or understand the Vietnam War. Even at the time, the war was controversial, and some people wanted to act as though it hadn't happened.

Veterans Day is important, Leber said, because it's a chance to share stories of what did occur.

"It's kind of nice to let people know the experiences we had back then," he said. "When we came home [from Vietnam], there was no big welcome home for us. My welcome home was my mother, crying and hugging me, and that's all I needed really."

The controversy about the war, though, ate at him. "I tried to just keep a blank mind about it and just avoid it," Leber said. "And life goes on, you know."

Now, decades later, he said it's important to share the experiences. And it's important that people, including and perhaps especially young people, are taught about the war.

Joe Byrnes, who currently services as a village commissioner, is another one of the vets featured in the banners. He did two tours in Vietnam, leaving the military in September 1969. The memories are still clear. In Vietnam he experienced both the worst and best times of his life.

The worst, undoubtedly, was a rocket hitting his sleeping unit. He remembers the exact day and time: July 15, 12:20 a.m. There were 20 guys in the unit; three were killed and eight were wounded.

But meeting those other soldiers was one of the best things that ever happened to him. To this day, he talks about the friends who died; they're still part of his life. And he's regularly in contact with at least one person he served with, someone he thought was dead for decades. (For the rest of the story, visit forestparkhistory.org/joseph-byrnes.html).

"We watched each other's backs," said Byrnes. "They were the greatest group of guys. When they say 'band of brothers', that's what it was."

The stories of Mohr, Leber and Byrnes have been collected and can be viewed and heard on the Historical Society's website at forestparkhistory.org/our-neighbors-our-heroes.html.

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