BY WHITNEY PRATHER DUVALL
Sweet Owen Contributor
Sixteen million Americans served in the military during World War II. Today, a mere fraction of this “Greatest Generation”—approximately 167,000—are still with us. For Marlene Browning-Wainscott, capturing their individual stories has long been a time-sensitive mission.
If you’ve ever picked up a copy of Sweet Owen Magazine, like you’re doing right now, you’ve likely read Marlene’s biographies of Owen County’s servicemen and women—which include detailed firsthand accounts. For many of us, this may be the closest we come to sitting down with a veteran and hearing their story.
A Henry County native, Marlene is an instructor of psychology at Kentucky State University. She and her husband, Jason, have operated Full Service Automotive, specializing in oil distribution, marine, and mower sales and repair, since 2005.
Touting a passion for history, Marlene said her interest in veterans and the armed forces comes from her great-aunt.
“While the art of writing letters has greatly diminished over the past few decades, I found great pleasure in the stories she would write about in her letters,” Marlene said. “Her first husband lost his life overseas during World War II, and she suddenly found herself at the military base alone. She was facing the loss of her husband during a difficult time for so many and was trying to get back home to her family.
“While she had briefly shared this story with a few family members, she did not care to discuss it openly. I realized how important it was to learn about how this war affected those who lived it. While history books and classes provide an overview of these events, they can never express what it was like to have truly lived these experiences.”
With this interest in tow, Marlene said her true inspiration for capturing the stories of veterans stemmed from one such Jarl Lee Harris. To many in the community, Harris was known as the “Sign Man,” a talented painter of several signs for local businesses who lived next door to Marlene and Jason’s shop.
“I noticed one day that he had a World War II veteran hat on, and I asked him when he served,” Marlene recalls. “This was the beginning of our long friendship that continued until he passed in 2022. That day, (Harris) shared with me that he had retired from the military and had participated in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. He was literally living history.
“As a paratrooper, he jumped on D-Day, participated in the Battle of the Bulge Operation Market Garden, liberated several concentration camps, and received the Purple Heart commendation for his bravery during service. This is just a brief glimpse into his long career in the military, but this amazing story was something no one knew about. He made me realize the importance of documenting, preserving, and sharing stories that might otherwise be lost forever.”
Marlene’s mission is to capture what is omitted in history books.
“The details of their experiences are, to say the least, humbling,” she said. “For the most part, while we recognize the importance of honoring our veterans, we do not completely understand the sacrifice they have made to provide us with the freedoms we have in our society. It’s important to share their stories to better understand the cost of freedom.”
As she works to enhance our understanding and appreciation of all that comes with one’s sacrifice and service to the country, it’s been impossible for her to be unaffected by this endeavor.
“It has truly been a privilege to capture the stories of our veterans and current military men and women and share them with others,” Marlene said. “During an interview with a Korean War veteran, my daughter was sitting quietly behind us. He was recalling a time that they were under fire and how they were trying to rescue their friends from behind enemy lines. He was 18 years old. When he left, she looked at me and said, ‘He was just a few years older than me when he did that, and kids my age are worried that our internet isn’t working.’ Their stories had already changed me, and now they had changed her. Through his story, and many others, she became a patriot and developed an appreciation and respect that may have never been achieved otherwise—that’s why this is so important.”
You, too, can be a party to this intimate, firsthand experience documented through Marlene’s articles featured in this magazine each quarter.
“I’ve been honored to share these stories, and my focus has always been to honor the men and women who have sacrificed so much for this country. I can honestly say that there has been no greater privilege to be able to create continued friendships with the individuals I have interviewed over the past decade. It is one thing to read about wars and military service from a book on the internet, but the connection that’s created by hearing it from someone who lived it is extremely powerful.”