WWII veteran wins battle against lifelong foe

(CBS News) COOKSON, Okla. -- Inside a single-wide in Cookson, Okla., a tortured soul lives alone.

"It's a hard life, let me tell you," says 89-year-old Ed Bray. "You ain't never lived hard until you go through what I've been through."

Bray served in World War II. He was at Normandy on D-Day, has two Purple Hearts and more than a dozen other medals. But to this day, he still can't even read what they're for -- not because it's too painful, but because he simply can't read.

"The toughest thing that ever happened to me in my life was not being able to read," he says.

Illiteracy can be that damning.

"I've covered this up for 80 years," he says. "Nobody in this town knows I can't read."

Until he retired, Ed worked a civilian job at an Air Force base refueling planes. A coworker helped him with the forms and whatnot. At home, his wife covered for him for 62 years until she died in 2009. Today, Ed manages okay, but the soldier in him still refuses to surrender.

"I want to read one book," he says. "I don't care if it's about Mickey Mouse. I want to read one book before I die."

Northeastern State University professor Tobi Thompson
Northeastern State University professor Tobi Thompson
CBS News

Over the years, Ed says many people have tried to school him, but invariably either the teacher or the student would get frustrated and give up. Then, a few months ago, a friend suggested he see a professor of reading education at Oklahoma's Northeastern State University.

"He told me I was wasting my time," says professor Tobi Thompson. "And I said, 'Well, we'll just sit and chat a couple times a week, is that okay?'"

After War: Eye on Veterans Affairs

She says eventually their weekly talks gave way to flash cards.

"And everything started clicking," Ed says.

He got pretty good at the sight words, but the real breakthrough came just last week, when at the age of 89, Ed Bray read a book about George Washington.

"It gave me goose bumps and it still does. It still does," Thompson says.

Last month, Ed Bray read a book about George Washington.
Last month, Ed Bray read a book about George Washington.
CBS News

"It just makes me feel good," Ed says.

He's read three more since, and though they're just third-grade-level biographies, each one has the same dramatic ending.

"Can you believe you read that?" Tobi asks a teary Bray.

Each one has the same moral takeaway for anyone who thinks they're too old to do something.

"Get in there and learn, baby. Now! 'Cause you ain't going to learn in that pine box," Bray says.

Just learned to read and already a poet.

To contact On the Road, or to send us a story idea, e-mail us.

  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.

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