I wish I could ride a bike, he said. You save all that money riding a bike. But my joints are all roughed up and I lost my hearing when a cannon went off next to my head at Omaha Beach. You know what you get from the government when you lose your hearing? Not much. And these hearing aids cost $6,000.
So often, we turn our backs on older people and their stories. But the old soldier was so full of life, I couldnt resist hearing more.
So you were in the D-Day invasion crossing the English Channel? I asked. I heard that was quite a fight.
Oh yes, I was with an outfit of men all thrown together from different units, riding these halftracks with machine guns that we used to spray the hedgerows with because the Germans would be hiding behind them. The turrets could swivel all the way around so you could fire those guns in any direction.
Were you scared during the landing? They say it was pretty rough.
Oh sure, he nodded. The Germans were up on the hills above the beach in pillboxes with little slits in them, he said, drawing a narrow box with his hands. And they sprayed our men who were landing with their machine guns, cutting them down. And we also had barbed wire and all sorts of obstacles to get through just to get at them.
Im lucky to be alive, he added, but I went on to Paris and then up through Belgium and Holland, all the way to Berlin.
Were you in the Battle of the Bulge? I asked, thinking of the biggest, bloodiest battle of the war, in which 19,000 Americans lost their lives in the bitter cold and deep snow of Belgium and northern
I was on the outskirts.
Sounds like you did alright, just staying alive.
Yes, although I got wounded in the war and got the Purple Heart, he said. A few years ago, I took my medal down to the coin store and asked if it was gold because its so shiny. And they said, no, its fools gold. Can you believe that? The government didnt even give us medals of gold, and back then, gold was cheaper than it is now. They gave me a tin medal, and here I lost my hearing and the government wont do much of anything.
But he recounted all this in such a cheery manner that I could only imagine that fate or God or his guardian angel had given him the greatest gift of all for surviving World War II -- that of life and memory.
The unfortunate plight of veterans the world over is that after the fighting is done and the political leaders and their war profiteer pals have made off with the spoils of the national treasury, the veterans who fought the war tend to be forgotten.
In our own country, this goes back to Shays Rebellion in 1786 when hundreds of farmers rebelled against the new American republic. Many were unpaid veterans of the American Revolution, whose anger was fueled by heavy taxes and debt. The farmers were short on cash because they relied on a barter system and were often forced to sell their land to speculators.
Veterans have had their grievances with the government (and its apathetic attitude) ever since. In our own lifetime, Vietnam veterans suffering from the effects of Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress syndrome have reported feeling abandoned, as have veterans of the Gulf War in 90-91 who suffered from the neurological disorder of Gulf War
Syndrome. Those cases were notorious because initially, our governments reponse to injured vets was that it was all in their heads.
The War in Iraq has seen 29,395 wounded as of last week, along with the 4,058 killed. Many of the wounded are in far graver condition than vets who earned Purple Hearts in the past for the simple reason that today, battlefield surgeons and trauma teams are able to save horribly injured soldiers who would have died of their wounds in prior wars. That‘s both the good and bad news about medical science today: it can keep people alive, but at what personal cost?
On Memorial Day, we honor those who died for their country. Shouldnt we also honor the wounded who left a part of themselves on the battlefield?