The year has slipped into November and Halloween is behind us—though candy lingers—and the big holidays loom in front. Looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas, it is easy to slide right past a more somber one that is right in our path: Veteran’s Day.
It is never just a day for me. The reason is my father. He retired from the army in 1964 after two wars and over twenty years. Forty years later he was still fit, still working every day, and we still called him Sarge.
Dad joined the Michigan National Guard at eighteen and was called up to national service two years later. His stories made the early years of the war sound like summer camp, with him and his buddies from the neighborhood in training at Fort Leonard Wood, Fort Knox and even in the desert. The desert training proved unnecessary; they never went to North Africa. Finally, in March 1944 they shipped out. It is almost hard to believe in the light of our eighteen-year presence in Afghanistan, but after the massive land invasion that was Normandy, World War II lasted slightly less than a year.
But what a year! His unit pushed across France and into Germany; it was among the troops that liberated Dachau. Sarge became an artillery forward observer. I had only a vague notion of how a forward observer might tell artillery how to aim its guns. I was astonished to learn not many years before he died that it involved flying in the rear seat of an “L-bird,” a fairly simple airplane with cloth skin and an engine I would swear was lawn-mower size. (I know this because my brother owned one.) This discovery astonished me because Sarge had been afraid of flying as far back as I could remember.
He briefly separated from the army after the war but chose not to take advantage of the GI Bill to go to college. Instead, he went back into the army two years later and was called up for Korea two years after that. There may have been other veterans who could describe and compare both Normandy and the Inchon Landing in 1950, but I doubt if there were many.
That year didn’t go as well as 1944-45. Dad’s battery helped cover the withdrawal of the Marines from the Chosin reservoir and then the evacuation of Hungnam in wickedly cold weather. He was among the last to get on the boat south, arriving on time for Christmas. Within a day or two, Dad rescued men from a burning tent, an act that earned him the Soldier’s Medal. He fought in Korea for another six months.
In 1950 PTSD wasn’t yet named and poorly understood, but Dad came home suffering. He came home, went to work, did his job, and suffered the rest of his life, periodically self-medicating with alcohol, but always doing his duty. There were postings to Alabama, Virginia, and Germany, and also a stint in ROTC. He retired at Mom’s assistance eventually. Aside from his pension, he took little from the army. He always took pride in what he had done. His service defined him and he was always Sarge. We buried him in his uniform.
So when Veteran’s Day comes, I think of Sarge. I think of all those young men who give their all, come home, and often suffer. We owe them a lot.
My newest release, Christmas Hope, takes place during World War I, but there is a bit of Sarge in my hero. How could there not be? He’s a decent guy, doing his duty. In spite of the horror of it, he never shirks, nor does he give in to despair. Sometimes just moving forward is heroic.