By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Air Force veteran Don Skinner, 83, wakes at dawn's early light, downs a cholesterol pill, blood thinner and some instant coffee then boots up his computer to spend eight hours each day telling war stories of the fallen who can't speak for themselves.
The reverential routine is a calling for Skinner, the oldest of 200 volunteers who create online profiles of men and women who died in the line of duty. These accounts can be viewed in a Roll of Honor on the website Togetherweserved.com, an online meeting place for veterans and their loved ones.
"These people's stories have got to be told," said Skinner, who was awarded a Purple Heart Medal and a Bronze Star Medal as a commanding sergeant who tended to his wounded comrades during an assault in Vietnam in 1968 despite being critically wounded himself. His service from 1949 to 1974 included the Korean War.
Between treatments for bladder and colon cancer, Skinner, a widower living in Aiken, South Carolina, has researched and created 858 profiles for the Roll of Honor in the last five years. They are among nearly 100,000 profiles on the site, which serves 1.4 million living vets and is free to veterans and family members to build but charges a $19.95 annual membership fee to connect with old service friends.
Traffic to the site typically surges on Memorial Day, said organizers, who noted that on last year's holiday the site received some 40,731 page views, up from their usual daily 5,889.
Some younger users said the site shed light on the military service of now-dead loved ones.
David Baker, a 38-year-old Navy machinist mate from Dallas currently stationed in Japan said the profiles provided a window into the World War I experience of his great-grandfather and World War II duties of his grandfather.
"I have learned so much from digging around for information about what he did, since he passed away before I could ask," Baker wrote on the site.
HEALING OLD WOUNDS
In Destin, Florida, Army veteran Denny Eister, 69, initially struggled but has mastered the skills of uploading pictures and cutting and pasting details into the 993 profiles he's created in the past two years.
Eister, who ran combat missions as an infantry officer in Vietnam, said the work has eased the emotional pain that lingers after coming home to an angry, not grateful, United States, and helped him summon the "courage" to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., after decades of avoidance.
"It makes me feel good about that period of my life that I tried to shut out for such a long time," said Eister, who was awarded the Bronze Star for rescuing his wounded platoon sergeant during a heavy firefight.
He said that when he returned to the U.S. after serving from 1965-1968, "We had to get out of airplane and run into the men's room and change into civilian clothes and hope nobody knew what we were doing."
As crowds gather Monday to watch Memorial Day parades and lay wreaths, World War II Navy veteran Barbara "Bobbe" Stuvengen, 89, will pay her respects on the computer her sons helped her purchase.
"It's been a lifesaver for me, especially since my husband died after two years in a nursing home with Alzheimer's," said Stuvengen, of Orfordville, Wisconsin, who served in the Navy from 1945-1959.
Through the site, Stuvengen has met more than 10 friends, some of whom have visited her, hungry for tales of the Navy from a woman whose 17th birthday dinner on December 7, 1941, was interrupted by radio newscasts of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.
"I sometimes feel like the matriarch of a very large family," Stuvengen said.
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Scott Malone and Alden Bentley)