Spouses of veterans keep stories of survival alive


SULLIVAN, Ill (WCIA) — When we talk about honor guards, it’s for the soldier or service member.

But next to them is often a spouse who’s left at home.

We sat down with four women who are sharing their stories about their families, struggle and standing by when their husband was deployed overseas.

“He lost 60 pounds in three months,” said Emogene Burrows of her late husband Roy Yarnell. “I’ve got the recipe. They’ve got glass and sawdust and I don’t know what else was in it, but that’s what they had to eat.”

Yarnell was shot down over Germany on Christmas Day in 1944 before he was taken as a prisoner of war.

“He was stationed in England and was part of the Eighth Air Force,” said Burrows, now 95.

Her hopes of his rescue from the prison camp were answered by part of Gen. George Patton’s army. Yarnell was released and taken to a hospital and England before being returned to the United States.

Though Yarnell died at just 36.

Ann Shaw shared a similar experience in a different generation.

“That’s what he wanted to do,” Shaw said about her husband S/Sgt. Joseph Shaw. “He’s never talked about why he wanted to do it. He just wanted to do it. His dad signed for him because he wasn’t old enough.”

S/Sgt. Shaw was stationed in Puerto Rico when he and Ann were married.

“He told me this was the life he had chosen,” said Shaw. “He said, ‘We can be here today and Timbuktu tomorrow. If you don’t want to, we’re not gonna be married very long.'”

The Caribbean was just the beginning of their travels.

“Then we got sent to Spokane, Washington,” Shaw explained. “We went from there to Minot, North Dakota and nothing personal, but they can’t pay me to go back there. Then we got to go to Florida, Ft Walton when he volunteered for the air commandos.”

Then it was off to Savannah, Georgia where you could say Joseph Shaw’s life in the military got a little more interesting.

“He flew all over out of there,” Ann Shaw explained. “He always said it was secret cargo. Nobody could get on the plane but him and the crew.”

After Georgia it was off to New England.

“Dover, Delaware,” said Shaw. “That’s where Vietnam entered our life because that’s where they brought everybody back.”

The Dover Air Force Base is traditionally where military personnel killed overseas are brought before being turned over to family.

“He got orders to go from there and it was because of his small engine skills,” Shaw said. “He went to Vietnam as a forward air controller, Air Force.”

He was living in the jungle while Ann was back home in the U.S. with three kids.

That was 1968, but Shaw wasn’t in Vietnam for long.

“He called it ‘Big Bertha,’ Shaw explained. “It was a canon the enemy would bombard them with every night. One night, they got him. He was going to the bunker and he got hit in the head.”

The next thing he knew he was in a MASH Army hospital.

“He was called a traumatic asphasiac,” Shaw said. “It’s like he’s had a stroke, but it was all physical damage. He didn’t know what anybody was saying. It was all gibberish.”

Shaw eventually returned to central Illinois via Texas.

He now lives in a nursing home in Mattoon.

Mary Sims lived a far different experience, in a different generation.

She married her husband Robert in 1960, five years after then President Dwight Eisenhower pledged his support to South Vietnam.

“He went into the military, into the Marines in 1962,” said Sims. “He was gettin’ one of those letters and he didn’t want the Army.”

Robert, now commander of the legion in Sullivan, was stationed in California at Camp Pendleton.

“I stayed in Mattoon and moved back home with my parents because we didn’t have the money to live and then I was going to have our first baby, too,” Sims explained.

Mary says the situation was rough.

“We’d been married two years,” Sims said. “We had our life all set up and going, and, of course, he wasn’t there to experience the birth. He was going overseas. He was going to Japan.”

That’s when their families packed up Mary and her new daughter Debbie and sent them on a train out west.

“We went to California for the weekend, said Sims. “It was the weekend the Cuban Crisis came up, and so he didn’t get sent out with the first bunch.”

After Robert Sims spent a year in Japan, the family was reunited in central Illinois before moving back to base in California.

Dodie and Don Butler got married during Vietnam.

Don had joined the Navy after school, and they tied the knot during his break after boot camp.

“Nobody knew about SEALs back then,” said Butler. “This was in ’69 and ’70.”

Don Butler met some SEALs and decided that’s what he wanted to pursue.

“He went to the BUD/S training in California and we got stationed in Virginia Beach and we were stationed there about 40 some years,” explained Butler. “The first four years we were there he was home 11 months out of the four years.”

The couple had two kids by then.

“They’d call up in the middle of the night and he’d be gone and we wouldn’t know if it was practice or he was goin’ some place,” said Butler. “There were 150 SEALs on the East Coast and 150 SEALs on the West Coast and that was it.”

Of course, there weren’t cellphones, text messaging or emails.

“We’d number the letters, so he’d know there was one missing,” Butler said. “If he’d get number three and then all the sudden get number two, back and forth. That was hard.”

Those weren’t the only problems when Don was away.

“Things always broke the day after they left,” said Butler. “You know, the washing machine, the car. One time, we were taking him to the airport and we turned off the kitchen light and it went ‘poof’ and smoke coming from the attic.”

But if was far more than broken appliances.

“He was gone,” Butler explained. “He missed the first Christmas, and we didn’t have kids then when we were in Hawaii. Other than that he [missed] Thanksgiving and birthdays and anniversaries and that kind of stuff, but that was the only Christmas.”

So, did Dodie realize what she signed up for?

“No, I married my high school sweetheart, but at the same time there wasn’t much of a choice.”

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