COOKSON, OK (CBS) -- Almost 68 years after World War II's end, a decorated veteran of that conflict is waging a struggle that he says is the toughest of his life.

Inside a single-wide in a Cookson, Oklahoma, a tortured soul lives alone. Ed Bray says, "It's a hard life, let me tell you. You ain't never lived hard until you go through what I've been through."

Bray, 90, 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, but not because it's too painful - but because he simply can't read. Bray says, "The toughest thing that ever happened to me in my life was not being able to read."

Illiteracy can be that damning. Bray says, "I've covered this up for 80 years. Nobody in this town knows I can't read."

Until he retired in 1981, Ed worked a civilian job at an Air Force base refueling planes. A coworker helped him with forms and what not. At home his wife covered for him for 62 years. She died in 2009. Today, Ed manages OK, but the soldier in him still refuses to surrender. He says, "I want to read one book. I don't care if it's about Mickey Mouse. I want to read one book before I die."

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 here at Oklahoma's Northeastern State University. Tobi Thompson says, "He told me I was wasting my time. And I said, 'Well, we'll just sit and chat a couple times a week, is that OK?'"

Tobi Thompson says eventually their weekly talks gave way to flash cards. Bray says, "And everything started clicking."

He got pretty good at the sight words, but the real breakthrough came in February when Ed Bray read this book about George Washington. Thompson says, "It gave me goose bumps and, you know, it still does. It still does."

He's read ten more since, and though they're all just third grade level biographies, each has had the same dramatic ending.

Each one, the same moral take-away for anyone who thinks there too old to do something. Bray says, "Get in there and learn, baby. Now! Cause you ain't going to learn in that pine box."

Just learned to read and already a poet.

Read or Share this story: