Seven years removed from the roadside bomb that blew his left leg off in Afghanistan, retired Army Staff Sergeant Justin Lansford actually managed nervous chuckles as he described lying beneath a burning truck and wondering whose brand new Nike boot had landed next to his head.
Addressing an audience of some 30 listeners, Lansford then described the way another sergeant rushed over and held his hand, getting burned himself in the process, until the vehicle could be pried off of him.
Called on next to share his own military experience, Rear Adm. Brian McCarthy — whose 30-year career spanned Vietnam to Desert Storm — almost looked despondent. “It’s like following Elvis,” he said.
Joined by Army special operations veteran Bob Keller, McCarthy and Lansford were the first speakers in what may become a regular series of community conversations called “War Stories,” hosted by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Topics Editor Lee Williams.
Sometimes graphic and challenging, the 90-minute exchanges provided glimpses of service and sacrifice in the military, as well as opportunities for the speakers to promote their favorite charities for assisting fellow veterans.
The cross-generational discussion also highlighted operational contrasts from different eras. Attached to the Navy Reserve, McCarthy told listeners that his 12- by 32-foot riverine patrol boats in Vietnam were made of plastic, that his “brown water navy” crew wore cloth hats, had no ear protection, and never thought about body armor.
“It’s funny,” interjected Lansford, also an Iraq war veteran, “because his boat had the same loadout as my entire platoon did.”
With just roughly 1 percent of Americans in uniform, the “War Stories” speakers likely provided a revelation for the uninitiated.
Keller, a 23-year active duty veteran winding down his career, estimated he had participated in about 1,000 missions and engaged enemy fire more than 300 times. Sometimes making two to three runs per day into harm’s way, he detailed the adrenaline rush of competition, not just with lethal adversaries but with team members anxious to swing into action.
Guiding listeners through the anticipation and hazards of ground fire, he said resistance “means it’s gonna be fun on target. Because that’s what you’re there for, right?”
“We never called it fun,” joked McCarthy, whose crew would stop 20 to 30 sampans a day along Mekong tributaries searching for weapons, each encounter tense with uncertainty.
Keller reminded listeners that special operations troops have a different mindset, with hair-raising missions being “like me going to Disney World every day.” He said “I literally would’ve paid the Army for 10 years to let me do what I got to do.”
The real sacrifice, he said, was borne by his family, which would go for days without knowing if he was dead or alive. Keller introduced several family members to a round of applause.
McCarthy wanted listeners to know that not all the existential moments surfaced in combat. He talked about running into a four-day typhoon aboard a destroyer, taking on 60-foot waves while attempting to refuel with an aircraft carrier. “One mistake and people are going to die,” he said. “If a line snaps, you’ll lose body parts.”
The presentation wrapped with plugs for various nonprofits.
Lansford wanted to spread the word about Valor Service Dogs, which his wife founded to match veterans and first responders with dogs to help them overcome a variety of challenges. He also saluted various services provided by Operation Patriot Support.
Keller drew attention to his Gamut Initiative, which hopes to expand professional military-grade firearms training to more law enforcement agencies. He also wants to bring more emergency response training to the program.
McCarthy recently retired from the Sarasota Military Officers Foundation in order to devote full-time attention to Mission United, which networks various community services to veterans in transition.
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