The November wind stripped leaves from the Survivor Tree at the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.
A few feet away, the sun sparkled off the black fur of Tommy, a Labrador retriever guide dog resting at the feet of Michael Stephens, a 61-year-old visually impaired U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served his country in Vietnam.
Stephens was among about 15 to 20 members of a support group for blind and visually impaired veterans called VITAL, Veterans' Independence Through Adaptive Living, visiting the national memorial just days before Veterans Day.
“It's important because as a veteran we should teach other people, children, young people about respect for people who have lost their lives in situations like this,” Stephens said of the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
“These things that happen like this are the face of evil. People need to know the difference between good and evil. This is what happens when evil manifests itself.”
Outside, as he sat near the Survivor Tree, he reflected on where he was at 9:01 a.m. the day of the bombing.
“I was on the south side of Oklahoma City at some apartments,” he said.
“I was on the couch with one leg off, and I was just fixing to get up and get my dog up and turn the TV on and go outside when the blast jarred my door that far away. I thought ‘What the heck was that? That had to have been a bomb somewhere.'
“By the time I turned the TV on, they were already reporting that something happened down here.”
Stephens began losing his vision in about 1989, and his eyesight has continued to worsen.
At the memorial museum, he nearly pressed his face to photos to see images or relied on the descriptions of Michelle Williams, or did both.
Williams is the AmeriCorps program coordinator for the group's organizer, NewView Oklahoma, formerly the Oklahoma League for the Blind.
At one point Williams read, “This close-up of a destroyed vehicle's mirror and passenger door illustrate the spray of debris and shrapnel across the area.” Stephens leaned forward, very close to the image and said, “Look at all the holes.”
Ben Knolles, with NewView, described a photo to Emory Finefrock, an 89-year-old veteran with macular degeneration.
Knolles looked at the photo, then toward Finefrock and said, “The only thing that's left there is a chair, and it's sitting on a ledge.”
Finefrock, who served in the Navy in World War II, sadly shook his head.
Just last month, he traveled with other veterans as part of the Oklahoma Honor Flights program to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
When asked why it was important for him to visit the memorial and museum with the group, he said, “It's a memorial, a remembrance of lives lost.”
Place to get together
Thomas Larson, spokesman for NewView Oklahoma, said the support group provides the blind and visually impaired veterans a place to get together at times and offers two to three field trips each year, such as this one.
“Veterans Day is about remembrance, just like this memorial is about remembrance, and we thought it would be something that would be meaningful and moving to the veterans here who served our country,” he said.
Stephens, who wore a jean jacket with a sticker of an American flag over his heart, paused after listening to Williams describe several photos and items.
He said, “I came here today out of sheer respect for those lost, for the survivors and for the rescuers.”
Stephens stopped at one display not only for himself but for Tommy.
It was titled “Man's Best Friend,” a tribute to rescue dogs.