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Carrying the stories of soldiers at Elgin Veterans Day service

Members local veterans organizations’ honor guard units attend Veterans Day ceremony Monday Veterans Memorial Park Elgin. | Janelle Walker for

Members of local veterans organizations’ honor guard units attend the Veterans Day ceremony Monday at Veterans Memorial Park in Elgin. | Janelle Walker for Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 13, 2013 6:11AM

ELGIN — Mayor David Kaptain never served in the military, although he had expected to do so following his college graduation in 1969.

But over the years, from working at Elgin’s Bluff City Cemetery to the Fox River Water Reclamation District and then as mayor, he has gotten to know several veterans from wars ranging from World War I to those who served in Vietnam.

Kaptain was keynote speaker Monday for the city’s annual Veterans Day program, held at Veterans Memorial Park adjacent to Gail Borden Public Library. The event, held in chilly, rainy conditions, has been an Elgin tradition for many years, officials said.

It has been a good year in Elgin for honoring veterans, Kaptain said, in a large part due to the program Big Read of the Fox Valley.

Since Sept. 8 and ending Monday, area residents were encouraged to read and discuss the book “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien.

Set during the Vietnam war, the author uses his personal experience as a U.S. soldier in Vietnam and the stories of his comrades there to illustrate the things he and other soldiers kept with them to remind themselves of home.

The stories of his veteran friends are the things he carries with him now, Kaptain said.

As a young man working at Elgin’s Bluff City Cemetery, he got to know Howard, a World War I veteran.

Howard was a “doughboy” whose job it was to carry messages to the front, often by running or while driving a motorcycle, Kaptain said.

One of Howard’s biggest fears was that he would drive his motorcycle through a cloud of poison gas.

The use of poison gas during the first World War was what led to a world-wide ban on such chemicals in 1917, Kaptain said. In the recent past, he noted, Syria has been condemned for using such gases on its own residents.

“They thought it was a big enough issue that they resolved” to ban the gases that can kill indiscriminately, Kaptain said.

“Howard taught me that we don’t give up on the message” of protecting others, the mayor added.

Different service

John Kaptain, his father, was 33 when he was drafted to serve in World War II, David Kaptain said. He left his wife and children, and went to Virginia for boot camp. Instead of being sent to Europe, however, his father found himself stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska, for 2½ years — as a tailor.

While the most attention is often given to the veterans who served on the front lines, there are many veterans who never fired a shot — such as his father, Kaptain said.

“I learned from my father that you provided for the soldiers going to the front” by ensuring that they would be clothed, fed and receive medical care, he said.

He has taken that lesson with him as both a manager and as mayor, Kaptain added.

“My job was to make sure the people who work for me … have the tools to do their jobs,” he said.

Another veteran, Bob, worked with Kaptain at the water department, and he served in the Korean War. During the war, a shell exploded next to him, leaving Bob with poor hearing and eyesight.

Also, the incident occurred on the North Korean side of battle lines, and Bob was captured — but he later escaped, crawling his way back to NATO forces.

Bob often would ask Kaptain to help him with his contact lenses when they rolled up and under his eyeball. Kaptain would “stick his finger in Bob’s eye” to get the contact back out. Sometimes, Kaptain said, the contact lens didn’t cooperate.

“He’d say, ‘Don’t be a baby and get that out of there,’ ” Kaptain laughed.

Bob, he said, had one of the highest pain thresholds he had ever seen. That, he added, is something that comes with age and experience.

Another friend, Charlie, served in Vietnam and managed to get through two tours of duty without being injured, Kaptain said.

He once told Charlie that he wished he would have been drafted so he could have experienced the camaraderie, Kaptain said.

Just as it was divine intervention that he had never been injured in the war, Charlie told him, it was likely divine intervention that Kaptain never saw his draft number come up, Kaptain said.

He was meant to be here, Kaptain said, and become mayor and serve in another way.

“I have memories of wars I never served in” because of those men who shared their stories with him, Kaptain said. “Those are the things that I carry.”

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