NPR StoryCorps

Inspired by her father's passion for military service, Denise Baken joined the Army in 1975 at age 24, looking to follow in his footsteps.

But the retired colonel didn't realize how closely her father's experience in the military mirrored her own until she faced challenges — both as a woman and an African American — over her 28 years of service.

This story is part of StoryCorps Legacy, which provides people of all ages with serious illness and their families the opportunity to record, preserve and share their stories.

Julia Medina was a single mom who raised 10 children while working a variety of jobs, including as a cleaning woman in Fresno, Calif.

"She was strong," said Maria Rivas, Julia's daughter, at StoryCorps in 2014.

Connie Mehmel and Ian Bennett have a mother-son bond forged by fire.

Connie, 68, retired from the Forest Service last week, marking the end of her 42-year career. Ian, 42, is a lieutenant with the Seattle Fire Department.

Connie became a firefighter when she was a young mother in the 1970s. At the time, the Forest Service was working to recruit more women to join its ranks.

Tom Gasko loves vacuum cleaners. He not only repairs them, he has a collection of hundreds of vintage and modern models, which are on display in a museum and repair shop in Rolla, Mo.

His fascination with vacuum cleaners began early. It started when he was a toddler, with his mother's Rainbow cleaner. At 6, he began repairing his neighbors' broken vacuums.

For nurses Kristin Sollars and Marci Ebberts, work is more than just a job.

"Don't you feel like you're a nurse everywhere you go?" Sollars, 41, asked Ebberts, 46, on a visit to StoryCorps in May.

"I mean, let's be honest, every time we get on a plane you're like, E6 didn't look good to me. Keep an eye out there."

Sollars and Ebberts have grown so close while working together that they've come to call themselves "work wives." They first met in 2007, working side by side in the intensive care unit at Saint Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.

Pedro Lopez was in seventh grade when a rumor began to spread through his school in 2008: Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were raiding Agriprocessors, the meatpacking plant where his parents worked, in his small hometown of Postville, Iowa.

Editor's note: This story contains language that some listeners may find offensive.

To siblings Flip and Christine Cuddy, Susan Ahn Cuddy was "Mom."

But she was also a Korean American lieutenant in the U.S. Navy who trained pilots to shoot down enemies during World War II.

It wasn't until historian John Cha's biography of Susan was published in 2002 that her children learned about many of their mother's accomplishments.

When Elizabeth Coffey-Williams first came out to her family as transgender in the late 1960s, the language of gender identity wasn't what it is today.

"A lot of the words that they have today, like transgender and non-binary, they didn't have them," Elizabeth, who was in her early 20s at the time, told her niece Jennifer Coffey in a recent StoryCorps interview.

Five years ago, Ferguson, Mo., erupted.

A Ferguson police officer killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African American man, in what the U.S. Department of Justice would later rule as self-defense.

After Brown was killed on Aug. 9, 2014, protesters took to Ferguson's streets, chanting, "Hands up, don't shoot!"

In the days of protests that followed, strangers Jamell Spann and Elizabeth Vega marched to the Ferguson Police Department to demand justice.

Amanda Farrell struggled with mental illness for much of her life.

When she was 18, she jumped in a lake because a voice in her head told her to. EMTs pulled her out and treated her for hypothermia. She was later placed in a psychiatric ward and committed by the state.

"Living in a cemented room with nothing but a pad on the floor, there was absolutely no hope," she said. "I was told that I was a lifer."

StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military and their families.

Walter Dixon had been married for just five days when he shipped off to Korea for his second war deployment.

About a year later, at age 22, he was declared dead. When his obituary was published in the local paper, his wife back home in Waynesville, Mo., had no way of knowing that the news was premature.

In reality, Dixon was alive behind enemy lines.

The 1940s were significant for a number of reasons.

America went off to fight in the second World War. Orson Welles released his masterpiece Citizen Kane. A rocket-powered plane flew faster than the speed of sound.

And a great love story was being written.

Joel and Julia Helfman grew up in the West Bronx in New York during the '40s. Joel was 13 when a 12-year-old girl moved in across the street. After an errant ball during a stickball game landed near Julia as she read a book, she retrieved it for Joel.

This story is part of the StoryCorps series of conversations.

A half-century ago, America's dreams were realized in space. The power of U.S. innovation and spirit took the Apollo 11 crew to the moon and back.

That mission was possible because of a diverse team of engineers, astronauts and mathematicians. It was also possible thanks to the help of one 10-year-old boy who was in the right place at the right time.

Facing persecution, violence, lack of health care and myriad other barriers to safety, millions of refugees leave home each year seeking a better life in a different country.

As of 2017, more than 2 million Somalis have been displaced, in one of the world's worst refugee crises, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military and their families.

In July of 2011, just two months before "don't ask, don't tell" was repealed, Navy Operations Specialist Sean Sala says he felt like he had to "get even" after serving under a policy that barred openly LGBTQ people like him from the military.

Tina Dietz grew up in North Dakota, in the sleepy, rural town of Mandan. But to her, it felt like a battle zone.

"I thought parents screamed at each other all the time," Dietz, now 38, tells her partner, Patrick Conteh, in a 2018 StoryCorps interview. "I didn't know any different."

Yet one silver lining shone brightly over the gloom: visits to her great-aunt Shirley's farm.

"It was just 60 miles," Dietz says. "I knew that road like the back of my hand. Every mile marker we passed, I was one minute closer to just being loved."

Many dangers await migrants who attempt to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. Hundreds die each year, faced with dehydration, hypothermia and drowning. Many more go missing along the route, separated from their group.

Maria Ochoa is part of an organization called the Tucson Samaritans. She helps migrants along the way who are stranded or in danger. She brings them food, water and medical assistance.

This Sunday, as sisters Estela and Candi Reyes mark Father's Day, they will be thinking of their dad, Juan, who died in 2010.

Juan Reyes was born in Mexico and immigrated to the U.S. in the 1940s, eventually settling his family in El Paso, Texas. Estela, 50, and Candi, 46, adored their dad, and at StoryCorps in 2012, they recall the lasting influence he had on them.

"Papito era lo máximo," Estela said. "He was everything to us."

Growing up in El Paso, Estela remembers Juan was a "tough guy."

Fifty years ago this month, police raided a gay bar in New York City called the Stonewall Inn.

It was a common occurrence at the time, but on this night, patrons – trans women of color, lesbians, drag queens and gay men – said "enough." The raid ignited six days of protests and became known as the Stonewall Riots – largely credited with sparking the modern gay rights movement.

This week at StoryCorps, we remember William "Lynn" Weaver, one of StoryCorps' most frequent participants. Weaver died at the age of 69 on Saturday.

We first heard from Weaver in 2007. In that conversation, Weaver remembered his father, a janitor and chauffeur in Knoxville, Tenn., who learned algebra one night from a textbook so that he could help his son, who was struggling with his homework.

After World War II broke out, 26-year-old Gilbert Seltzer enlisted into the Army.

Soon after, he was told he was being put on a secret mission — and an unconventional one at that.

Seltzer, then an architectural draftsman, was selected to lead a platoon of men within a unit dubbed the "Ghost Army." Made up mostly of artists, creatives and engineers, the unit would go on to play an instrumental role in securing victory in Europe for the U.S. and its allies.

Editor's note: This story contains some graphic descriptions of injuries that some readers may find disturbing.

On Oct. 23, 1983, Navy hospital corpsman James Edward Brown survived one of the deadliest terrorist attacks on Americans.

When a bomb detonated at the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Brown was at his post in the sick hall on the Marine compound — about 200 yards away.

At the time, 1,800 Marines were stationed in the city during the Lebanese Civil War.

Fifteen years ago, David Wilson and his husband Rob Compton were one of the first same-sex couples to marry in the U.S.

If it had been up to Wilson and Compton, their union would've been recognized years before that. Frustrated by the injustice, both men became plaintiffs in a lawsuit that led to Massachusetts becoming the first state to legalize same-sex marriage on May 17, 2004.

They married in Boston at City Hall and at their church that same day.

Sada Jackson lost her mother, Ileana Watson, to breast cancer in 2016.

There are many things Sada, now a mother herself, wonders about her late mom. So at StoryCorps, she sat with Ileana's best friend, Angela Morehead-Mugita, to learn more. "I want to know more about my mom, as a woman, because I only knew her as Mom," says Sada, 35.

Angela, 55, says she and Ileana were each other's emotional support during vulnerable moments. When Ileana was facing cancer for the second time – when Sada was pregnant — she broke down to her friend, saying, "I may not see my grandbaby."

After surviving the Holocaust, Judel and Pauline Schuster resettled in Buffalo, N.Y., to start a family.

This Holocaust Remembrance Week, two of their children, Abe and Esther Schuster, reflect on their parents' joyful view of life in a recent StoryCorps conversation.

That philosophy didn't always mean following the rules.

Abe said that one evening when he was in high school, he introduced his parents to his calculus teacher and her husband at a neighborhood restaurant.

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