Veteran Voices: Oak Harbor researcher lines up subjects for National Geographic book

By Ron Newberry

It’s still a little strange for Matthew VanGiesen to flip the pages of a hard cover book published by National Geographic and read a personal account of the most difficult day of his life.

VanGiesen, a U.S. Navy veteran and volunteer with North Whidbey Fire & Rescue, was attending a Monday night meeting at the fire station five years ago when he got a phone call from his father and learned his younger brother was killed in Afghanistan.

In the pages of “Veterans Voices: Remarkable Stories of Heroism, Sacrifice and Honor,” VanGiesen shares how two strangers aboard a cross-country flight helped him cope with the tragedy and gave him the strength to prepare for an emotional reunion with family upon touching down.

The tale is one of dozens of personal accounts of veterans from various branches of military service intended to offer insight from those involved in service and perspective from others impacted.

Oak Harbor’s George Lawson served as senior researcher for the book. He worked with co-authors Robert M. Miller and Andrew Wakeford to identify subjects and arrange interviews.

Lawson, a retired Navy chief and Desert Storm veteran, helped set up interviews with intriguing subjects. Some were well known such as actor and legendary martial artist Chuck Norris, an Air Force veteran who got intererested in martial arts after a deployment to Korea, and former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Robert “Rocky” Bleier, an Army veteran who overcame severe leg injuries from a grenade that exploded near him in Vietnam.

Another intriguing subject was actor Michael Conner Humphreys, an Army veteran who served in Iraq but is best known for his role as a young Forrest Gump who breaks free of his leg braces in the 1994 blockbuster film.

“He’s just a great young man,” Lawson said. “He’s very gracious. Very kind. Very thoughtful.”

Of the 74 subjects featured in the book, Lawson played an active role in landing about 20 of them, including three from Whidbey Island.

Lawson selected Navy veterans VanGiesen and Harry Ferrier of Oak Harbor and decorated career Army nurse Grethe Cammermeyer of Langley.

“It’s George’s fault,” VanGiesen joked.

Lawson and VanGiesen becames friends while both served as volunteer firefighters with North Whidbey. VanGiesen’s story resonated with him as have many he’s heard from other veterans and learned through research.

“I pulled Matt in to get the story behind what a family goes through and how the military takes care of them through a casualty assistance officer,” Lawson said.

Lawson has worked behind the scenes to market other books connected to military service, including another co-authored by Miller and Wakeford, “Portraits of Service” fromPatton Publishing.

“Robert and Andrew were looking at another book,” Lawson said. “National Geographic approached them and asked me to come on board because of my tenacity and knack of asking people to say yes to interviews and other things.”

In the acknowledgments section of the book, Lawson is the first contributor singled out by the authors.

“Without George’s extensive veteran research and his hundreds of emails, phone calls, and follow-up with securing interviews, this book would not have been possible,” the authors wrote.

The book was released April 26, the same day Ferrier died at the age of 91.

Ferrier, whose first combat action came at the age of 17 at the Battle of Midway in 1942, retired as a commander in 1970.

Lawson spoke at his funeral service in Oak Harbor.

“I had met with Harry Ferrier several times. He was a natural,” Lawson said.

“Veterans Voices: Remarkable Stories of Heroism, Sacrifice and Honor” was rated among Amazon’s best-selling military history pictorials not long after its release. The hard cover book was being sold for $22.20.