NPR StoryCorps

Ruth Coker Burks was a young mother in her 20s when the AIDS epidemic hit her home state of Arkansas in the early 1980s. She took it upon herself to care for AIDS patients who were abandoned by their families, and even by medical professionals, who feared the disease.

Coker Burks, now 55, has no medical training, but she estimates that she has cared for nearly 1,000 people over the past three decades, including her friend Paul Wineland's partner.

StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ten years ago, Keith Melick was a medic in the Army, and Roy Wilkins was a command sergeant major in the Army's Special Forces.

They crossed paths in Afghanistan, where Wilkins was wounded in an IED explosion.

And then this August, by chance, they met again — in the gym at a VA medical center in North Carolina, where Wilkins was playing with his wheelchair basketball team.

In 2007, Franklin Gilliard and his wife, a teacher's aide named Sherry, started their own business: a driving school. Shortly after, they were hit by the recession.

The couple worked hard to stay afloat, but despite their efforts, they found themselves drowning in past-due bills and late notices and became homeless in 2013.

"We had the car repossessors there. We had the bank knocking on the door. You just feel like you're a prisoner in your own home," says Franklin, 46.

When an assisted living home in California shut down last fall, many of its residents were left behind, with nowhere to go.

The staff at the Valley Springs Manor left when they stopped getting paid — except for cook Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez, the janitor.

"There was about 16 residents left behind, and we had a conversation in the kitchen, 'What are we going to do?' " Rowland says.

"If we left, they wouldn't have nobody," the 34-year-old Alvarez says.

Their roles quickly transformed for the elderly residents, who needed round-the-clock care.

The imprint Ron Riveira's grandparents made on his life has been indelible. Ron, a hospice nurse in California, served as a Navy corpsman and a medic in the Marines. His grandmother and grandfather — a Korean War vet — helped raise him.

Ron remembers that his grandfather may not have said much, but his love for his wife was obvious. "They were a phenomenal couple," Ron tells his friend Jason Deitch at StoryCorps in Concord, Calif.

StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When Sgt. Ryan Sharp returned from serving two tours in Iraq with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, he didn't know he had a traumatic brain injury.

All he knew, and all his family knew, was that he was deeply depressed. He would talk about ending his life.

During a StoryCorps interview in Lincoln, Neb., his father, Kirk Sharp, asked if Ryan remembered any of those suicidal conversations.

In 2011, NPR aired an interview with retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Max Voelz remembering his wife, Staff Sgt. Kim Voelz. Kim was killed while disarming an IED in 2003. Here, in an update to that interview, Max talks to a fellow bomb tech who helped him cope, and an NPR listener who reached out after hearing him on the radio.

StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 1998, Trista Matascastillo was training to become an officer in the Navy, when she was sexually assaulted by someone she had served with.

She told no one about the attack.

"I used to say when I put my uniform on, I was in my Superwoman suit. Nothing could happen, nothing could hurt me," she told her husband, former Army 1st Sgt. Hector Matascastillo, during a recent visit to StoryCorps in St. Paul, Minn.

Joanna Ebenstein is founder of the Morbid Anatomy Museum, which features a human skeleton, a pickled possum and a two-headed duckling, among other things. It's in Brooklyn's Gowanus neighborhood.

Ebenstein and her father, Bob, recalled during a recent visit to StoryCorps how ever since childhood, she's been fascinated with things that make most of us squirm, including black widow spiders.

"I used to catch them, and I'd put them in jars," says Joanna, 42.

StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lance Cpl. Brian Parrello was the only member of his platoon who didn't make it home from Iraq. They were patrolling near the Haditha dam when Brian was killed by an IED, at the age of 19.

In the decade since Brian's death, his platoon has grown close to his family. One of those Marines, Sgt. Kevin Powell, recently sat down with Brian's mother, Shirley Parrello, for a StoryCorps interview in West Milford, N.J.

In 1997, Darius Clark Monroe was a high school honor student in Houston, Texas. He had never been in serious trouble with the law.

But soon after he turned 16, he robbed a bank at gunpoint with two of his friends.

Now, 17 years later, he sat down at StoryCorps with David Ned, a customer who was in the bank during the robbery.

Ned asked him, "How did you get to that point where you said, 'I'm gonna rob a bank?' "

StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Paul Braun is a sergeant with the 34th Military Police Company in the Minnesota Army National Guard. In 2009, when he was serving near Basra, his company was assigned an Iraqi interpreter they called Philip.

Phil Mortillaro and his son, Philip Jr., run Greenwich Locksmiths in Manhattan. The elder Mortillaro has been practicing the trade since he dropped out of school after eighth grade.

"I was one of those kids who would show up when school first started," Phil tells his son on a visit to StoryCorps in New York. "Then they would see me again around Christmastime. And then they would see me in June to tell me that I had to do the grade over again. So dropping out of school was — it was inevitable."

Anne Purfield and Michelle Dynes are epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They spent the past several weeks responding to the Ebola epidemic in the Kenema district of Sierra Leone, and recently returned to Atlanta.

One of the many difficult aspects of working around the disease is not being able to comfort people who are grieving, Purfield and Dynes explain during a visit to StoryCorps in Atlanta. (Ebola is spread through contact with bodily fluids.)

"You can't touch anyone," says Purfield, 37. "You can't comfort them."

Sonia Vasquez raised her daughter, Tina, just outside New York City. And when money was tight, Sonia would take on multiple jobs to pay the bills.

"I was a day care provider. I work at the gym in the deli. I take care of the elderly," Sonia, now 63, told her daughter, now 29, during a recent visit with StoryCorps.

One night, while going home, she was so exhausted that she fell asleep at the wheel. Luckily, it was at a red light.

At times, she says, she feared it was taking a toll on her ability to be a good mom.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Thousands of immigrants have died crossing the southern U.S. border. Many are never identified, leaving their loved ones to speculate about their fate.

Until recently, some students in the Spring Branch Independent School District in the Houston area dreaded lunchtime. The cafeteria meant humiliation, because their parents couldn't afford a hot lunch.

The alternative for these kids was a cold cheese sandwich; anyone seen leaving the lunch line with one was marked as being poor.

Until school volunteer Kenny Thompson saw it happen.

Sekou Siby was supposed to be inside the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Siby, an immigrant from Ivory Coast, worked in the kitchen at Windows on the World, a restaurant at the top of the north tower. But on that day, he had switched shifts with another kitchen worker, Moises Rivas.

In the mid-1950s, Alton Yates was preparing to graduate from high school. His mother had recently passed away, and his father was struggling to raise seven kids on his own.

"I knew that as soon as I finished high school I was going to have to help with taking care of the family," Yates tells his daughter, Toni, on a visit to StoryCorps in Jacksonville, Fla.

Most of the jobs available to him wouldn't pay well, so he decided to join the Air Force. They were looking for volunteers to help test the effects of space travel on the human body.

When Darnell Moore was a teenager in the late 1980s, living in Camden, N.J., he didn't know he was gay — but he did know he was an outcast.

"At 13 I was a nerd," Moore tells his friend Bryan Epps, during a visit to StoryCorps OutLoud in New York. "I took such great pride in wearing dress pants and button-up shirts, unfortunate white socks like I was a preacher."

"My grandmother would send us to the store, and I hated going to the store because I know that somewhere between my grandmama's house and the store there would be somebody wanting to pick on me for some reason."

About a decade ago, Kris Kalberer left her job as a retail manager to raise her kids and care for her elderly mother. For a while, the family did well on her husband's income. Then he lost his job.

Their finances spiraled out of control. They lost their house in March 2011, and since then, their lives have become transient. They stayed in motels, or with friends. Currently they live in their car.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story contains graphic descriptions and offensive language.

Alex Landau, who is African-American, was adopted by a white couple as a child and grew up in largely white, middle-class suburbs of Denver.

Still, "we never talked about race growing up," Landau tells his mother, Patsy Hathaway, on a visit to StoryCorps. "I just don't think that was ever a conversation."

"I thought that love would conquer all and skin color really didn't matter," Hathaway says. "I had to learn the really hard way when they almost killed you."

In the late 1980s, Mytokia Fair was working as a Baltimore police officer. But at home, her then-husband, Tyree Friend, beat her.

One night, she recalls, something had upset him. "And it got to a point where he was hitting me, I mean repeatedly, and he spat in my face," Fair tells her current husband, Thomas Fair, on a visit to StoryCorps.

Fair says she knew she couldn't get out of the relationship. "I knew he would follow me," she tells Thomas.

When Barbara Moore started working as a bricklayer in 1973, the 21-year-old was the only woman in Baltimore doing the job.

It wasn't the first job she'd tried, but a desk job, she says, just wasn't the right fit. "Right out of high school I worked in a[n] office, but a couple hours behind a desk and I was falling asleep," Moore tells her daughter, Olivia Fite, on a visit to StoryCorps in Baltimore. "So I became a bricklayer."

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