The walking vet
Newton Daily News, Iowa
Apple Pie, stars and stripes, and the Bald Eagle are all symbols that are synonymous with the America. But John O'Brien actually might be more "American" than all of those combined.
He chain smokes Marlboro's, drinks Budweiser, cracks wise at every opportunity, doesn't take handouts, plays and sings country music on his guitar and served two tours in Vietnam as a Navy Seabee. He also has the determined spirit of America's forefathers, which is on full display in his current "mission" which is to walk and ride his way back home to Estes Park, Colo. from his starting point in Morgantown, W.Va.
"My whole goal is to get home to Colorado," O'Brien said. "I did two tours in Vietnam so nothing scares me (on why he chose to walk and ride with strangers to get home) and the bus is too boring."
The total trek is more than 1500 miles, and on Feb. , he found himself in Newton, which is a little less the halfway mark for his trip, that he set out on more than a month ago. O'Brien is hoping this trip home goes a lot better than his trip home from Vietnam in the '70s.
"I was at the San Francisco airport and this man called me a 'baby killer' and spit on me," he said. "Well it pissed me off. So I ran up to him grabbed him and started choking him and took him to the ground. Then a military police officer came up to me and said, 'Sir, I know where you came from, but could you let that man go?' and I said, 'That's not a man, that's a piece of (crap).' Then he goes, 'Well sir, could you let that piece of crap go?'"
Despite that rocky start to his journey home after fighting overseas for 36 months, O'Brien fondly recalls the rest of that visit to the San Francisco airport.
"After I let that guy go, nobody else had anything to say," he said. "Then when I started walking, it was almost like the Red Sea, the whole crowd just started parting. I went in search of the tavern and when I got there people were chatting it up. But I guess the word spread, cause once I walked in there, you could hear a pin drop. I walked up the bartender and asked for a shot of Jim Beam and a Budweiser. Instead of a normal shot glass he gave it to me in a rocks glass filled about halfway up. As I got ready to pull my wallet out to pay, the bartender went, 'It's on me.' So I took my shot of Jim Beam and everybody in the bar was looking. So then I took my beer and did a salute to them all, and that's when the chatting started up again. I spent another three hours there before my flight, and I didn't have to buy one drink."
To this day, being called a "baby killer" bothers O'Brien.
"I went from being an 18-year-old high school graduate to a grown man in a big way," he said in regards to his time in Vietnam. "We had this local kid who was 11 years old and did laundry for us on our base. And kids over there loved candy. I used to carry around the red and white mints that you find all over the place in restaurants and hotel lobbies. I carried a .45 in my right pocket and candy for the kids in my left pocket.
"One day we were getting back from duty," he continued, "and the laundry kid walked up to me and asked for candy. As I started to go for my candy. He pulled a .380 on me. I just pulled the big .45 and planted one in his chest. I was 18 years old, barely older than that kid, and I just sat there, holding his body and crying. I knew that I had to do it because he could've killed me and the rest of my battalion, but it still didn't feel right. So that's what made me think, 'What gives this piece of (crap) the right to call me a baby killer?'"
For his actions, he received unwanted praise from his fellow soldiers.
"As I'm sitting there, holding this kid and crying, I started feeling pats on my back," he said. "I looked up at those guys and said, 'I've got five rounds left.' And they all walked away. I don't tell a lot of people this story. He didn't deserve to die. Don't pat me on the back for killing a child. I know I saved our lives, but don't pat me on the back."
While his current trip home hasn't been as eventful, O'Brien has still found his fair share of critics and supporters.
"I get judged a hundred times a day for walking," O'Brien said. "But, hell, I served two tours in Vietnam. If I want to walk across this country, what's wrong with that? I'm not a bad person. I'm not wanted. On the road, I've met some real good people, and I've met some (not-so-nice-people). But mostly good people."
Some of the "not so nice people" he met were a couple of teenagers in Illinois.
"In Illinois, I woke up to two kids punching me in the head," said O'Brien. "I had been walking for awhile and saw a good field that I thought would make for a good resting spot. Well, I woke up with these kids punching me and they took my wallet. Luckily, I kept some of my cash in my pocket. But they got my I.D. and all that stuff. And one of them tried to take my guitar. I grabbed him by the throat and threw him to the ground, and they took off running."
The money and identification were not worth fighting over to O'Brien, but his guitar most definitely was. He is a musician by trade, and the reason he went to Morgantown was to play a steady gig with a band called Custard's Last Band. So while the thieves made away with his wallet, he kept his guitar and case, which he goes everywhere with. Other items he travels with are his wheeled suitcase, a duffle bag, some rolled up blankets, maps of the states he travels through, his cap, chewing gum, his cigarettes and two lighters -- one for smoking and one for keepsake.
The latter is a silver-colored, beat -up and rusted Zippo with A5 monogrammed on the front and Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., etched into the back of it.
"A buddy of mine got killed in Vietnam," he said. "When he died, that lighter was in his pocket. And his sister gave it to me. She said, 'He would want you to have this.' So I've kept it ever since. I never put any lighter fluid in it. I keep it for his memory."
For the most part, O'Brien has walked and gotten rides in his effort to get home. While in Newton, he has instantly won over folks in town who have met him. When he arrived, one of the first people he met was Dolar Cannon Jr.
"He came into the barber shop and the first thing he said was, 'Can I ask you a question?'" Cannon said. "And he asked, 'Where can I find to a place to stay for the night with a warm bed, a place to shave and a shower?' I told him where the Salvation Army was and offered to walk with him there."
The two walked and talked from Rialto Barber Shop to the Salvation Army, and Cannon became engrossed in O'Brien's storytelling ability and sense of humor, and something inside of him told him to help this man.
"It's a part of being a Christian," Cannon said. "If I feel like there is a person in need, and I can show them around, I'll more than gladly offer to take them there and give them a few dollars. God will bless me for this and it does the heart good to help. I will always remember him one way or the other."
At the Salvation Army he meet Kelly Zach, who then introduced him to Chris Chartier, the Director of Jasper County Veteran Affairs. Because of privacy rules, the two couldn't comment on what they did exactly, but Cannon witnessed the whole thing and with O'Brien's blessing filled in the blanks.
"They put him up at the Mid-Iowa Motel for two nights, after they ran a background check on him (on account of the lack of identification) with the police. After he checked out, they granted him an additional two nights. The people at the police station said, 'He was the most honest person they ever met.' They gave him a voucher for $50 in groceries, $25 in toiletries, $15 in credit at the Salvation Army store," Cannon said. "We went in there and picked out shoes, jeans and a sweater. I was impressed with what little I saw from their generosity. I hope they continue to help."
Zach personally helped O'Brien when he was visited the Salvation Army.
"I have such high regard for veterans" Zach said. "I never met anybody like him. I was completely flabbergasted that this man was on the road. (Someone) offered to buy him a bus ticket back home and he turned them down. He wanted to do this on his own, truly piece by piece. He's just a man on a mission and he is going to get 'er done. Once I knew he was a veteran, I got Chris (Chartier) involved."
Chartie, without going into details, gave a general outline on what his group does for veterans.
"We do this for all veterans," Chartier said. "Right now, we're placing a headstone in a cemetery. We did another one of those and found someone a wheelchair awhile back. That's just what we do. That's what this office is for. We're here to help."
O'Brien has been in Newton now for several days and planned to continue his trip back home again at noon on Tuesday just south of Highway 14. He sticks to back roads, small towns and highways to travel. He doesn't like big cities and it is illegal to "catch a ride" on the interstate. Back in his dimly lit room at the Mid-Iowa Motel, O'Brien was cracking jokes to his visitors and prepared to get ready to hit the road again.
"Every time I look in the mirror, I think, 'God I'm good looking, I get better looking every day.'," said the 63-year-old, who points out that he isn't going bald -- its just a "wide-part." "People in this town are nice around here. A lot of people are afraid of me. I just want to finish what I set out to do and walk back home."