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Freedom Isn’t Free: Chronicles of American Veterans

Freedom Isn’t Free: Chronicles of American Veterans

In honor of Veterans Day and all who have served our nation, the NRA extends our gratitude for all the men and women that have selflessly taken the oath to support and defend this nation, its Constitution and its citizens at all costs. They’ve exhibited immeasurable commitment in their pursuit of defending our way of life, making incredible sacrifices – many giving their lives – so that we remain a free people.

We have collected tales, memories and accounts from U.S. military veterans, presented chronologically from World War II to the War in Afghanistan. These passages shed light on all they have done in able to keep this country free, and provide stories and advice about the firearms these veterans used throughout their military careers and beyond.

Lou Cunningham
World War II, European Tour

Lou Cunningham served in the Army during WWII. When he was drafted into the Army in 1942, he left behind his mother, who he supported financially, and girlfriend Charlotte in Maine. Charlotte waited for Lou to return home, having never received word from him during the war. Lou and Charlotte Cunningham married the instant Lou returned from his mobilization to Germany and started a family shortly after. The couple has been married for 71 years.

While in Germany he was assigned to a reconnaissance team as part of the 106th Infantry Division. A month into his deployment, his 140-member team was tasked to cross the English Channel on a recon mission ahead of the Battle of the Bulge.

Thinking it would be a quick “in and out” mission to check out the land, they were caught off guard as the Germans were awaiting their arrival. His entire division was captured on the Belgium border, having only been in Germany for a month.

The Germans made the soldiers march for 100 miles, feverishly changing positions to stay ahead of the trailing Russian army. Afterward, they were then forced into a cramped boxcar with nothing to eat, reduced to using a helmet as a latrine. They traveled this way for five days, with only occasionally receiving a meal of turnip soup. 

The Americans arrived at a Jewish work camp, where they had a section for prisoners of war. The conditions were utterly terrible. Beds were so heavily infested with lice that they had to use the insecticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT powder to sterilize each bunk. Over his five months of captivity, he was allowed just one shower.

When the British Army finally liberated his team, Lou weighed a meager 95 pounds. Every soldier in the unit received a Purple Heart; however, the reconnaissance team was not eligible for the decoration because they were captured in their vehicles.

A clipping from a POW magazine that helped show what the prisoners looked like, and what they were put through.

When looking back at the firearms used in this war, Lou has a unique perspective because he spent a lot of his time looking at German firearms during his captivity.

He opined that the Germans manufactured better weapons than the U.S. at the time, recalling the Germans’ submachine gun, referred to as “burp guns” due to the guttural noise they made and their high rate of fire.

Lou was issued an M1 rifle, and also used a .30-caliber machine gun when as a crewman in armored cars.

Edward Stever 
World War II, Pacific Tour

At 97 years of age Edward Stever can still almost instantly recall WWII. When the U.S. entered the fight in 1942, “Ed” was living in his hometown of Buffalo, New York and was married to the love of his life, Shirley Stever. By the time he was drafted, he had started a family, and therefore was able to stay behind until 1943. 

Ed left for the war with the U.S. Army Air Forces in January 1944 as a radio operator on a crew running long and short-distance radios through the CBI – China, Burma and India. A little known tour in the Pacific, only two percent of soldiers did duty in the CBI.

Flying conditions were often times very rough and dangerous. As a result, after crewmembers performed 650 hours of flying, they were mandated to take two weeks of rest. Somehow, Ed got overlooked, flying more than 100 additional hours before receiving downtime.

The turbulent air wasn’t the only danger crews faced when flying over the mountains, as they were constantly dogged by Japanese fighters lurking and harassing them.

As a radio operator aboard aircraft, space was at a premium for Ed and his crewmates. As a result, he was issued a .45-caliber revolver as a self-defense sidearm should he come face-to-face with the enemy. Carrying rifles or machine guns would have been incredibly impractical in such conditions.

“I was glad I didn't have a rifle because you couldn't carry it on the plane, and if you left it in your tent a bandit would steal it,” Ed said.

In what little spare time they had, some airmen would make time for target practice, but most of them usually wanted to catch up on sleep.

Ed’s familiarization with firearms didn’t start with his military service, as he began hunting waterfowl and deer in Buffalo at age 17. Today, he maintains a collection of rifles and shotguns he's amassed that he continues to use for hunting and target shooting.

Ed Walker
Korean War

Ed Walker grew up on a small farm in Matoaca, Virginia, enlisting in the Navy at the age of 17.

“I wanted to get off that farm!” he exclaimed, explaining his desire to leave behind rural Virginia for a life of military service.

He got his wish, not returning home for two years.

When he went to enlist at 17, Ed still needed his father to sign the paperwork granting permission for him to join.

“He didn't want me to go. He didn't want to lose a farmhand, but I aggravated him so bad that he signed it,” Ed said, laughing.

Ed recalls it being very cold when he arrived in Korea right after Christmas. While aboard the ship, Ed worked on the seven torpedoes the vessel carried across the Pacific. 

As he was assigned aboard a ship as opposed to being in a ground combat role, the Navy didn’t issue Ed a firearm.

Even though the sailors didn’t receive firearms, the USS Zellars (DD-777), an Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer, was outfitted with “big guns”: six guns with three gun mounts, and two stations with 40-millimeter anti-aircraft guns. Each gun fit a 5-by-38 inch shell.

The ammunition would come up through a storage area through a conveyor belt, and we would have to load them in the guns by hand," he said.

Neil Chamberlain
Vietnam War

Neil Chamberlain, a native of the small town of Farmville, Virginia, enlisted in the military when he was 20 years old to carry on a family tradition – and also to stop spending all of his father’s money. He deployed to Cu Chi, Vietnam in 1967, assigned to the 25th Hawaiian Division.

“My mother had lost a fiancé in World War II, so for obvious reasons she was hesitant about letting me leave,” Neil said.

He was promoted to sergeant close to his sixth month in Vietnam, a move he considered one of military necessity.

“Basically if you were fairly smart and were still standing, they would make you a squad leader,” he said.

A man of many trades, Neil served as a photographer while in Vietnam. 

Marching across the fields in Cu Chi. 

“The usual military training for a photographer was 26 weeks, long compared to an infantryman’s which was just 12 weeks,” Neil recalled. “It was so much longer because they taught us how to build cameras from scratch.”

In Vietnam, Neil’s unit experience heavy guerrilla fighting, and was the only platoon in the battalion that completed their objective. They were forced to pull back in three-man groups when airstrikes started coming in, and casualties were high.

“We walked in the area with 22 guys and walked out with 10,” Neil explained.

Neil recalls approaching the opening of a canal bank in a clearing, only to find himself cornered by the enemy.

“We were crawling forward, stuck in a crossfire, when all of a sudden I see the second guy’s head gets slammed into the ground. I crawled up next to him, [but] I didn’t want to take his helmet off because he had a hole in the back of it,” Neil recalled.“I started to move him, and took his helmet off after that heavy blow to the head. I couldn’t believe what I saw. The soldier has a bullet stuck in his helmet, and wasn’t hurt at all.”

Neil holding the exact helmet of his friend who was shot in the head. 

Neil served as a light weapons infantryman, using everything from a .45-caliber pistol to the M-16 rifle. Like many Vietnam veterans, he remembered the litany of problems that plagued the newly introduced service rifle during the fierce fighting in the jungles and swamps. 

Today, Neil said he still shoots, scaring off vermin on his 30 acres with a shotgun or using one his other guns for target practice, including a Springfield Armory M1A. He routinely carries a small. 45-caliber Kahr Arms pistol, which he said he loves.

Neil emphasizes the importance of running through real life scenarios in case of an emergency situation, and how that can help improve your marksmanship and gun safety mindset. 

Lt.  Gen. William G. Boykin
Vietnam - Afghanistan 

Retired Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin, the former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, spent 36 years in the military, with 13 of those years as a member of the elite Delta Force, including two years as its commander.

“I come from a family that has a tradition of serving in the military. My father and four of his brothers were all in World War II at the same time. There was an expectation that men in my family would serve their country, so I followed in their footsteps,” he said.

Boykin, a native of Wilson, North Carolina, attended Virginia Tech for his undergraduate degree, joining the school’s Army ROTC unit and receiving a commission as a second lieutenant upon graduation.

His military career started at Fort Hood, Texas, and he moved on to hold positions in the 2nd Armored Division and 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. 

Boykin saw action in a number of combat missions, including 1989’s Operation Just Cause in Panama, charged with bringing down Manuel Noriega and protecting American lives, as well as the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia in 1993, notorious for the events that inspired “Black Hawk Down.”

He also was involved in numerous other high-profile missions, including the 1992 hunt for Pablo Escobar in Colombia, the 1980 effort to rescue U.S. hostages in Tehran, Iran as part of Operation Eagle Claw, and the 1983 operation that took American forces to Grenada to rescue 1,000 American medical students, where he was severely wounded.

During his last four years in the Army he went into Iraq and Afghanistan, then took his final posting as Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence before retiring.

Unsurprisingly, the retired three-star general is no stranger to firearms. In addition to the wide variety of firearms he used in his military service, Boykin owns and uses a variety of personal firearms. 

Most of the time, Boykin said he carries a Kimber 1911, a .22 Magnum or a .380 ACP pocket pistol. 

“My wife and I are both very prepared,” he stated. 

When it comes to advice to the modern shooter, Boykin emphasizes the importance in finding something you're comfortable with and spending time with it on the range. 
“When you are in a situation to use that firearm, it is not the time to be thinking about what you have to do,” he advised.” You need to rely on muscle memory and instinct.”

Chris Barbagallo

Chris Barbagallo is a specialist in the U.S. Army. He too enlisted due to family tradition, following in his father’s footsteps.

“When I was about five or six, there was a photo of me saluting in my dad’s old jump boots and red beret from when he was in the 82nd Airborne Division, and he kept that photo on him wherever he traveled,” he said. “I just remember seeing it one day and thinking when I grew up I wanted to be just like my father.”

This ambition drove Chris, as he graduated early from high school and joined the Army “to be able to make a difference,” saying he felt an obligation to serve his county. 

Even though he was raised in Chesterfield, Virginia, he said he truly grew up the nine months he spent deployed to Herat, Afghanistan.

One of his most haunting memories of his wartime experiences was losing a fellow soldier, he said.

“It was my birthday. I got called in to the triage area because I was told we had a casualty, so I ran in there saw them laying on the trauma bed,” he recalled. “I held his head while [the medical staff] administer oxygen, but he died in my hands.”

Chris said his tour in Heart’s 14th Combat Support Hospital was “an eye opener,” emphasizing the culture shock or moving from trivial “first-world necessities to third-world problems” helped him put life in perspective.

“You get into this zone where there are really only three or four things you need to do: wake up, eat, work out and do your job, which for me was assisting in surgery and taking care of the casualties that came in,” he said.

When he arrived in Harat, he was issued a Beretta M9 service pistol, which he referred to as the “hugest, clunkiest gun” he's ever carried and lamenting how he had to clean it every other day to rid it of invasive sand. He said his armory also had rifles available for when the team went on convoy missions or accompanied Military Working Dog handlers and Civil Affairs troops.

Today, Chris is an active recreational shooter. He prefers to shoot his .308 Savage Arms FCP rifle for long-distance shooting. He also practices with his .270, of which he prefers the ballistics compared to the .308.

Additionally, Chris said he owns an AK-47, a 9mm Taurus pistol he uses as a concealed carry firearm, and recently purchased a Beretta 1301 shotgun that he’s eager to take shooting.

Chris recommends shooters dry fire for practice as they can do it most anywhere, but said there is no true substitute to training with live ammunition on the range.


These stories are a mere fraction of the endless wisdom, courage and history that exists in the minds and memories of American veterans. This Veterans Day, please take the time to honor the sacrifices the men and women of our military have made throughout our nation’s history, and thank them for their commitment to defending the American way of life. Freedom is never free, rather paid for in the blood, sweat and tears of those who are willing to give everything so that others may live. 

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