At 19, Michael O’Brien enlisted in the U.S. Army.
O’Brien, a native of Lexington, planned to work for a year and a half before going to college, but in 1964 U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War escalated. The federal government conscripted many men who didn’t enlist, so O’Brien signed up in February 1965.
“I don’t think anybody ever wants to go to war,” he said. “Back in those days, a lot of us that were in the service thought we were doing something good to try and stop the spread of communism around the world. That’s why we were in Vietnam to begin with. We thought we were doing something honorable for our country, so I think that’s why most of us enlisted.”
Now, more than 50 years after O’Brien’s own military career ended, he continues working to support veterans.
“I think it’s important to have Veterans Day and to honor those people that have gone out of their way to help protect us,” he said. “We have American troops all over the world, and I think we need to continue to honor those people who are serving in the military.”
O’Brien volunteers with Patriotic Productions, a group that established a traveling photo memorial to honor military members who’ve died since 9/11. They also host honor flights in which veterans can take charter jets to visit memorials in Washington, D.C.
He also works with Out Beside You, a nonprofit organization based in Blair, that helps disabled veterans transition to civilian life.
“We take disabled veterans and take them deer hunting in the fall,” he said. “We set them up with their families to make trips somewhere and enjoy something as a family.”
As a veteran, O’Brien knows firsthand the challenges military members face during service.
He spent his first tour of duty stateside, stationed at a language school in Monterey, California, near the Fisherman’s Wharf. He remained there for six months before spending 10 months at flight school. There, he served as the assistant battalion commander — the second in command at the flight center.
After he finished flight school, O’Brien went to Vietnam in 1967. There, he served as a chief warrant officer flying helicopters, fulfilling his dream of becoming a pilot.
“The stuff that we did every day was pretty hazardous,” O’Brien said. “I think there’s a kind of adrenaline jump a little bit in that aspect.”
O’Brien completed two separate tours in Vietnam before his active military career ended in December 1969. When he returned to civilian life, he went to college. He also returned to work for the same company he worked for before he enlisted.
Using the leadership skills he developed during his time in the military, O’Brien worked his way into upper management.
He settled down, married his wife Shirley in 1971, and they have two sons and four grandchildren.
Upon retirement, O’Brien began volunteering with organizations designed to support veterans. In addition to his work with Patriotic Productions and Out Beside You, O’Brien is active with the American Legion.
Members of the American Legion, which formed in 1919 at the end of World War I, are all volunteers and former veterans, according to Wilber native Gary Wooten, the commander of Nebraska’s branch of the Legion. Wooten spent 13 years with the Legion facility there before he became commander of the state branch.
Wooten said he believes it’s important to celebrate and honor veterans because they play a pivotal role in protecting the country and its citizens. Members of the armed forces put their lives on the line to protect and defend the country, and it’s critical to provide them with support and services when they return from service.
Legion volunteers provide services to veterans in hospitals and veterans’ homes located throughout the state. Some facilities in Omaha and Lincoln provide services specifically geared toward homeless veterans.
The Legion also provides funerals and last honors for deceased veterans. It also develops relationships with communities, providing assistance for holidays such as Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day.
It also provides financial aid to veterans during difficult times.
“During the last federal lockdown, the Coast Guard did not get paid because they are now in Homeland Security and are not under the Department of Defense,” Wooten said. “The American Legion ended up granting more than $1 million to the Coast Guard and their families to help see them through the time they weren’t getting paychecks.”
The organization also lobbies for veterans at both the state and national levels.
When O’Brien returned from Vietnam over 50 years ago, a strong anti-war sentiment flowed across the country.
“People were tired of it,” he said. “I think the purpose of being there got overridden by the many, many young men that were killed over there, so I don’t think there was a very good attitude toward people in the service by the time I got out.”
O’Brien noticed a shift in that attitude recently. During the past 15 years, he said more people hold Veterans Day celebrations across the country. Some businesses offer military discounts. More frequently, people will stop O’Brien and thank him for serving.
“50 years ago, nobody ever said ‘Thank you for your service,’” he said. “I think there’s been some big changes.”